In the United States, we pay a great deal of lip service to the concept of personal responsibility, often seeing personal responsibility as a one way street that puts a great deal of pressure on one party without seeing that all beings are interconnected in this journey called life. More so the American belief in the myth of personal responsibility renders many of its believers unable or unwilling to have compassion for others.
The problem with personal responsibility is that it often victimizes and shames and it creates a culture where truth can never be spoken. As I have said many times in this space, Americans love the Horatio Alger myth and the idea that we too can all become self-made men and women. The problem is that few of us make it on our own; we all stand on someone else’s shoulders.
I was a high school dropout, married and mothered all before the tender age of twenty. The statistical data says that my life should have essentially been over before it started. I suppose that had I not had a community of people who cared and supported me, I might just be a 40-year-old grandmother whose life consisted of a series of short-term service jobs and constant struggles just to survive. I’ve been thinking about this often as the country careens out of control as some our elected officials lose their collective heads all in the name of personal responsibility.
This past weekend in the US, millions of food stamp recipients temporarily lost their ability to access their food stamp benefits as the electronic benefit system that delivers benefits went down in a number of states. The online rhetoric grew ugly as more than a few people chose to denigrate food stamp users; accusing them of being lazy and shiftless rather than to look at the statistics that tell us that many who receive food stamp benefits are children, elderly or the working poor. By the way, we are talking food, hardly a luxury the last time I checked.
Not even victims of violence are immune from the myth of personal responsibility. When a woman or girl is sexually assaulted often the blame is placed on the victim. Clearly if she had not worn titillating clothing or drank alcohol she would not have been assaulted. What about if the man or boy who initiated the assault had backed off? What if the words no were actually heeded, why is the assaulter not held to the same standards that we believe victims should be held to? Because in many ways, the same people who worship at the altar of personal responsibility are too wedded to their fixed belief system to step back and see the humanity of all beings.
The problem with personal responsibility is that it gives too many of us a reason to not care and to deny the humanity of others particularly the humanity of those who are different from us. Compassion on the other hand requires action, it requires us to see the inherent beauty that can exist within all of us, and it means acknowledging the very fragility that is woven into the fabric of this experience called life. Compassion means knowing that our own fate can turn on a dime and that we may need help, compassion means knowing that we must work harder to ensure a better world for all of us. Compassion is hard work in a world where back-breaking and dull work is often shunned and looked down upon.