I’ve been thinking a lot lately about personal responsibility.
On one hand, I read this great article about parents in the U.S. these days ~ “Spoiled Rotten,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, which reviews current parenting books. Following the work of the anthropologist Carolina Izquierdo, Kolbert starts by contrasting a six-year-old girl of the Peruvian Amazon with kids in Los Angelas. The girl went on a food gathering trip with her family for five days, in which she voluntarily, without being asked, swept the sleeping mats, stacked leaves, fished for crustaceans, and cleaned and cooked them. She asked for nothing. Contrast that with LA kids (studied by Elinor Ochs), who couldn’t tie their own shoes and had to be begged five times to just take a bath. They were singularly helpless.
You should really drop everything and go read the article right now.
But it makes me think about my own life and my own kids. When I was a kid, we were very much like the girl in the Amazon. We did things because our worth was equated with how much we accomplished. I would like to say it was because we all had a sense that we were part of the family and all had to work hard to make the Ranch go, but that wasn’t exactly it ~ there was a little of that, but it really felt much more every man for himself, survival of the fittest. We used to scoff at the town kids who were “useless and lazy.” We were responsible for things at a young age.
Now, I’m very proud of that aspect of my upbringing ~ traditional values and all that ~ but it had a really unfortunate downside. The individual didn’t matter, emotions didn’t matter, and I came out of it an emotional trainwreck. Nobody “saw” me. I would do anything for anyone for love and attention, and it’s a wonder I wasn’t raped or something else when I went off I my own.
Fast forward to my kids. Well, there’s this story of them getting ready in the morning. It hasn’t improved much. I have to admit that they’re six and they still don’t know how to tie their own shoes. I am guilty ~ if you want to call it that ~ of many of the criticisms of modern parenting. (But, you know what, they are HEARD, you know? They don’t feel like they are a hole in the air.) My husband is better, but still our kids resemble the stereotype.
As a consequence of reading that article above, I’ve started more trying to emphasize their personal responsibility. We set boundaries, sure, but I’m trying even more to let it be their personal responsibility to get things done, sink or swim. It’s a daily struggle.
But all this thinking connected up with what I was saying the other day about rape jokes. I had a conversation on Facebook with a friend about it, and he was much more about personal responsibility. His bottom line was that words don’t have the responsibility, actions do, and so if you yell “fire” in crowded theater, he said, the fact that people get killed is not the fault of the personwho yelled fire but the fault of the people rushing out the door who kill other people’s fault.
Needless to say, since I’m a writer, I believe in the power of words, and I think that the person who yelled “fire” is the proximate cause. Not that those who ran are totally blameless, though.
But this brings me to blaming the victim. The horrible part about believing so much in personal responsibility is that then you can blame people for things that happen to them. You can blame the rape victim ~ basically, she was doing something wrong, perhaps just simply being female. You can blame the poor person. The American Dream says that if you just work hard enough, you’ll achieve success. Well, the other side of that is if you don’t achieve success, it’s your own fault because you don’t work hard enough. (Was watching a fabulous documentary about Howard Zinn last night that was making this exact point.) We know that that simply isn't true, as a generalization, and people who are in poverty work just as hard or harder ~ most likely harder ~ than those who are well off. Cuz they have to.
We are much more affected by forces outside ourselves than we wish to believe. Social Darwinism really is true. There are huge forces that not only decide the course of your life but also what brand of latte you buy. Some would argue that we really exercise no choice at all, that it’s all an illusion. I don’t go that far, but I do believe that there are huge forces with us or agin us.
I was thinking just this morning that, at the root of all this, was the idea of American Exceptionalism and personal exceptionalism and the breakdown of social ties and our responsibilities to each other. We in the U.S. no longer feel responsible for other people. We can be as selfish as we want, and we can go around the world bullying everyone and taking what we want. We don’t worry about the poor and the elderly and we blame them for being poor and elderly. We think it’s okay to break the rules ~ in fact, we have myths we tell each other all the time about the one who breaks the rules is the one who wins. How do you get ahead? You break the rules. In other words, you put yourself first ahead of all these other people and screw them. And we can get away with it because, ironically, we’re not held accountable.
I also wonder if everyone who is in middle age starts to think these things, that they’re not simply my epiphanies but a product of someone in their mid-forties thinking about things. So, to put a point on it, that I’m not exceptional in this idea but it’s part of the process of living, just as all teenagers rebel and all people get more conservative as they get older.
Food for thought.