Are We Responsible For Others?

This ambiguous and loaded question may have elicited a gut response from you. I would guess the answer is probably yes since anyone who is caring for or supervising another will feel appropriately responsible for the health and wellbeing of that person. Without you, someone may go unfed, unclothed, or unemployed. If you don’t do your job, whether or not a salary is involved, someone else may have trouble meeting their basic needs. When it comes to children, those basic needs go beyond food and shelter and include intellectual, psychological, social, spiritual and physical development. Not only are parents responsible, but it’s one of the most important roles we’ll ever play.

However, where do the lines of responsibility fall beyond the above circumstances? Are we responsible for making sure our adult family members, friends or co-workers make the right choices for their health, safety or wellbeing?

What about our neighbors and those in the community? Does it matter if people in the community are living in poverty or are suffering if we don’t have to witness their pain each day?

I’ve surprised myself to realize that my opinion on these matters have done a 180 over the years. The old me would’ve spent a lot of time trying to control and influence those around me to do the ‘right thing’ while feeling fairly sheltered from the issues in the community or even nation. My little bubble was pretty small and I was going to make sure it and everyone in it was just right.

I’ve since learned that I unequivocally do not know what is right for other people, no matter how wrong I may think they are. (This pertains to matters that affect only them – I reserve the right to have an opinion when others may be adversely affected). These days, I try to be more curious about their perspective, explore their assumptions and beliefs with them, and start a dialog rather than telling them what they should or should not be doing. Instead of getting them to conform to my definition of happiness, I now try to support them as they pursue their own. As a result, I am a better listener and support for the other, rather than a judgmental antagonist.

I also feel very differently these days about the strangers around me. I’ve blogged before about how we’re all connected in an unseen, unknowable way. Though I still have a tendency to be a bit in my head (constantly amusing myself with the interesting swirl of thoughts), it’s harder for me now to treat the occasional stranger or the person on the news as someone who does not affect me.

This notion is difficult for some people to understand – I still struggle with it. Just imagine, for instance, how it feels when you walk into a room full of angry or upset family members. Then imagine if that anger or fear continues below the surface for months or years, even if that family lives far away. Now imagine that the emotion is joy or peace. What impact does that sustained emotion have on you? It’s not something you can see or touch, but it has an impact on others whether they’re in the same room, same neighborhood or different state. It’s stronger the closer the bond, but make no mistake, it exists even if you’ve never met the person.

My current reaction to the question above, are we responsible for others, is a bit of confusion. It’s a complicated question and the answer is not what I once thought. I suppose 20 years from now it may be 180 degrees different in yet another direction. Stay tuned!

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