It seems to begin almost at birth, this ingrained response that makes us avoid assuming responsibility.
You see it in youngsters who are quick to point the finger at a sibling when something goes wrong in the family home. Teachers can give us a litany of annual excuses for incomplete homework or missed assignments they hear from youngsters in their classes.
The problems aren’t quaint or amusing, though, when this same transference of responsibility becomes part of our adult persona. Whatever the problem, it’s always someone else’s fault.
We’re always yelling at the other guy who makes a mistake in traffic. Ever been infuriated by a driver who failed to use a turn signal, then realized that your’s wasn’t blinking, either?
The argument can be made that many of the problems so ingrained in our society can be placed at the feet of our irresponsibility. There are problems and perplexities that have become part of our daily lives that, some would say, have arisen from the unwillingness of people to take responsibility for their own actions.
Now, it’s true that some people aren’t equipped for that responsibility. You can’t pull yourselves up by your bootstraps when your feet are bereft of boots. It’s not that aspect of our society that we’re addressing here.
It’s the rest of us.
It’s that majority of Americans — Catholics, Protestants, any sub-group you want to name — who are quick to find fault in various areas of our society and yet totally unwilling to share any responsibility for fixing those faults.
“They” are ruining our society, we say. “They” are running the nation into the ground. “They” are behind the inflamed rhetoric, the uncompromising political and social extremes of our society.
But the reality is “they” are us. And we, thank goodness, have the ability to fix our ills, if only we take responsibility for them.
Lots of smart people have noted the importance of personal responsibility. William Butler Yeats wrote that “in dreams begins responsibility.” John D. Rockefeller believed that “every right implies a responsibility.” Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr went so far as to say that “life has no meaning except in terms of responsibility.”
That may be a step too far across a theological divide, but the point is made: We need to be responsible for our actions, our lives and our futures.
During last Lenten season, Pope Benedict XVI noted that God’s commandment to love one another “demands that we acknowledge our responsibility toward those who, like ourselves, are creatures and children of God.” The pope encouraged Christians to remember what he called their “spiritual responsibility” toward their neighbors.
There have been other recent — and local — calls to personal responsibility. Deacon Royce Winters, director of African American Catholic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, delivered a riveting message at the 28th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Jan. 21 at the Cathedral. He, too, stressed our personal obligations.
“Our work and our faith should lead us to become people of conviction who will stand up for justice,” he told the crowd. People have a responsibility, he said, “to stand up for what is right.”
David Such, Tim Graham, Gary Montgomery and other leaders of the second Archdiocese of Louisville Catholic Men’s Conference are encouraging personal responsibility, too. They’re asking the men of the archdiocese to stand up and join with others in proclaiming their excitement about being Catholic. The theme for this year’s gathering on March 16 is “It’s Awesome to be Catholic: Growing and Sharing our Faith.”
“Over time we’ve kind of stepped away, or drifted away, from the notion that our faith is awesome,” Such said in a recent interview. “Now we want to emphasize that it is; that it is exciting. If men are willing to come and worship together and learn together for half a day, we think people will walk away changed by the experience.”
The Catholic Education Foundation is asking people to stand up, too, and help close the gap that exists between the need for tuition assistance and the funds available to meet that need. They’re asking people to become responsible for the economic security and future success of Catholic education.
There are, obviously, simple steps we can take. We can quit complaining and start acting. We can accept responsibility for our shortcomings in the past.
We can vow to end our own complacency, to help create the change the world needs.
We can help make things better.