Responsible

Some time ago, I was trying to figure out the organization thing, and I was trying to figure out how to complete all the projects I had started, and I was trying to figure out what my real priorities in life were. And here was my strategy: I wrote down all the things I was “supposed” to be doing on post-it notes and put them up on the wall in my hallway. The things I claimed to enjoy, the things that I thought were important, and the things that I thought I “should” be doing as a responsible adult.

And then I left them there. For weeks, I walked past this set of expectations, and every now and then I stopped and pondered why something was on the wall. What do I get out of that thing that I don’t really enjoy very much, but is so much a part of my self-image? Why do I keep doing that even though it makes me so stressed I want to scream? And when something came to me, I annotated the post-it. After a while, they had things on them like, “Good mother”, “upstanding citizen”, “caring person”, but above all else, “responsible”.

Responsible. I want the world to believe that I am a responsible person, that I know the duties of an adult and am capable of carrying them out. More than passionate, creative, loving, or even generous (although that was on there, too), I have been playing the role of the responsible adult. Even when I was a teenager, I was the designated driver at every party for years. Every weekend. Until… oh, wait. Last Thursday. For 23 years I’ve been the designated driver. Even at my own wedding, which I believe says something really significant. (It wasn’t somebody else’s fault.)

Responsible (adj.) Capable of being trusted. Having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one’s job or role. Synonyms: 4.  competent. 5.  solvent. 6.  honest, capable, reliable, trustworthy.

The thing about being responsible was that it was supposed to be a means to an end. What I wanted was adventure, and travel, and excitement. Hiking in the mountains of Nepal, crossing the Australian outback on camels, eating strange and exotic foods in locations where you could catch frightening tropical diseases and find yourself communicating entirely in hand gestures. The responsible part was just supposed to get me a good profession with a job that paid enough to support the lifestyle to which I hoped to become accustomed.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

These days I am very responsible, but that’s it. All the adventure that was supposed to be the payoff? Hasn’t happened.

Compromise

Of course, we compromise. We must. By the mere fact of being in relationship with other people, in the pursuit of the greater good, or for a long-term benefit, we accept things less-than our goals, pragmatically working on things that aren’t really what we believe in, because we think that in the long term, it will all work out. This was never more apparent to me than when I was working in faculty development.

The research on university education is pretty conclusive, and, I fear to tell you, that what it says is that we’re not doing all that good a job at it. We don’t teach the things that we want our students to learn, we provide the most support to the students who need it the least, and the development of the entire institution has largely been driven by neo-liberal market forces for at least the last 20 years. (I’m pretty harsh about The University, which is difficult for me, because it is one of my great loves. It isn’t a healthy relationship, but it’s lasted a long time. That might not be an entirely good thing.)

Anyway. So I found myself working in program development, and helping to set, support, and communicate institutional goals. I was also providing consultations for faculty members to help them improve their own effectiveness in the classroom. And one of the Big Questions in our practice was this: Do we tell professors that much of what they are doing probably doesn’t work?(1) We, who were tasked with improving teaching, were lower in the ranks than the people who were actually doing the teaching. The people who came in the door just wanting to make better handouts were at least THERE. We didn’t want to do anything to alienate them. So we compromised. We did workshops on whatever it was that people wanted to get better at, and once in a while we sneaked in more effective approaches, just in case they might want to try something different.

At another level of compromise, the university didn’t always develop the programs that the professors wanted to teach, because the funding for labs, classrooms, and equipment increasingly came from corporate donors. “We have to make our outcomes about employability, rather than about critical thinking or making a difference in the world. Students these days (in such a tough labour market) are really here for job skills anyway.” With this thinking, the very idea of critical skills shifts, and we start thinking about them as the ability to solve problems, rather than the ability to think about which problems need solving. Finally, I looked at my boss one day, and I said to her, “You know, at some point in all this compromise, we lose sight of what we are compromising for, and actually become about the compromise.”

Surrender or Defeat

At some point, I stopped being able to use my skills to develop software that would depersonalize people’s work environments (even if it made the business processes more efficient). I was no longer able to put enormous effort into polishing presentation materials to sell things that I wasn’t convinced we could actually build. I stopped being able to bring myself to meetings to consider how to solve problems for which we had no resources. I got… tired. I could hear my high school teachers shaking their fingers at me: “You’re not living up to your potential.” And the going rate for souls turned out to be remarkably low.

But still, I wanted to be responsible. I held onto that, applied it to the household finances, raising the kids, getting people to places on time, still hoping that it would eventually result in the stability that was supposed to let me go have adventures. And then I watched “Up”. And Ellie’s life made me cry out loud in the theatre, still makes me cry every time. It was a good life, and she had love, and happiness, and a lovely little house, and picnics in the park. But she never got to go on the adventures that she dreamed of. And I can see that coming, the cars always needing their piece, the house always wanting it’s entropy-tithe.

But when I say, “I’m going on an adventure now!” still there are people who shake their heads. “Are you sure,” they whisper over the phone, “that you are being responsible? We’re worried for your [still more quietly] future.” And I think, “No. No, I’m not sure that I’m being responsible. I’m tired of being responsible. I’m sick of being responsible. IT’S BORING, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!!! There has to be more to life than this! Somebody else drive the fucking car for a night. Bring me a glass of wine!”

What makes you think you’re so special?

And then, Lori Gottlieb writes an article for The Atlantic about how adults are failing to find happiness because (essentially) they can’t learn to accept their lot in life. That’s not quite how she puts it, but the quotes conflate an inability to accept a life of mere achievement with narcissism. They talk about young adults with helicopter parents as “teacups”. She pulls in Gretchen Rubin, of The Happiness Project, who admits that despite everything in her life being exactly what she was encouraged to work towards, she has this nagging feeling of emptiness.

I think that Lori Gottlieb is wrong, not about whether we (collectively) are over-parenting, and not about whether inaccurate mirroring and empty praise are problems. I think she’s right about those parts. The article takes a cross-sectional look at what is being done in parenting across several generations, and then draws longitudinal conclusions that don’t actually follow, and it probably wouldn’t get a very good mark in a qualitative research methods course… however, I don’t even think that THAT is the major problem. I think that she is wrong about what is going on with her (basically OK but miserable nonetheless) adult clients.  I think that our culture (and Gottlieb, by extension) may be pathologizing a normal stage in adult human development because we’re not used to seeing it.

Let’s talk Maslow for a minute (2): we’ve got all these needs, and when we’re successful, we’ve met all those basic needs for food, companionship, love, and even self-esteem. But now we’re trapped in self-esteem. We’re at a stage in human history in which lots of us have the opportunity to move on to self-actualization, and we have no road map to get us there. It’s unprecedented. And because Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist, rather than developmental, she has been trained to look for and treat pathology, when what is needed is developmental guidance. The message for these adults needs to be “There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just that your life as it stands is meaningless, and *you* need to be the one to infuse it with meaning. What you’re suffering from there: it’s existential angst. You need philosophy, art, music, meditation, and possibly a priest or a minister or a sensei, not a therapist.”

My gods, we’re fortunate! This is a sign of success, not failure! Our parents did a good job in helping us deal with all the other crap, and now we get to spend our lives answering some of the Really Big Questions! In fact, all those university educations and all that critical thinking training we got sent us down a path to questioning what it is that we’re doing here, being worker bees, heirs to Taylor and scientific management. Somebody else will solve the problem, it is left to you to implement it. Can you say cognitive dissonance? (3)

Because now we’re caught up in being responsible. In status anxiety, in keeping up with the Jonses, in the fear that somehow if we stop managing it all, even for one second, it will all go up in smoke. Careful, careful, don’t rock the boat. We only just got it balanced. Stop all that thinking we taught you to do!!! Wait! COME BACK! WE DON’T THINK YOU’RE BEING RESPONSIBLE!!!

This isn’t about parenting, it’s about the dominant stories in our culture. Our parents are as caught up in this narrative as we are, and our children will be as well if we don’t learn to tell a different story. I sat up straight in bed last night, half way through this post and said, “That’s why there are so many Life Coaches all of a sudden! They are the ones with the road maps!”

And then I said, “Find me a thinker who is still quoted one hundred years later who says that the path to human fulfillment is conformity.” And then I thought of a few, but they come from cultures that have very different stories about the self in society, so I revised it: Find me a thinker in this deeply individualistic society, made up of the winners and the also-rans, who says that the path to human fulfillment is conformity. (And allow me to humbly suggest that the people whose careers are so successful that they are being featured in The Atlantic don’t really know all that much about accepting a slot in the back row.)

I don’t want fame, and I don’t want to be special, at least not in that narcissistic, give me all the external validation, please, please, please kind of way. I want my work to matter, and I want to be heard. I want the same thing that all those other people want. We really are all special, but that doesn’t mean that we all get to be a rock star. It means that we all have something to contribute. And (I suspect) it is something more than being a little ant who does what they are told. Adult development doesn’t begin and end with being responsible. It is only one tool (technology, if you will) in the pursuit of security, happiness, and fulfillment.

And Where Does This Get Us, You Ask.

Let’s see. There’s at least two things here. How do you feel about your life and work? And how does it impact the way we raise the next generation?

I’m going to say something that may be heretical. We really don’t know anything about the future. We have more and less likely models. Ones that include, “And then a miracle occurs,” either of the heavenly or technological variety have very low credibility in my books. The stories that we use about securing ourselves against this uncertain future are necessarily at least a generation out of date. Seriously, does anybody still believe, “Get a good job, stick with it, save for your pension”? It’s our parents’ story. It doesn’t work when every job is one bad business decision and a two-week pink slip away from disappearing. It’s as out of date as bow ties.

Also, there is an enormous industrial complex whose primary survival mechanism is to keep us from feeling secure and good about our selves and our lives. They start up at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy and nibble their way down through our fears. “Self-esteem? You feel good about yourself? Oh, don’t get too puffed up! Pride goes before a fall. Besides, we need you to keep working for us without questioning the whys and wherefores.” Down, down, down. “You know, if you don’t have these things, and you don’t have that job, and you don’t feel good about yourself, you’re never going to fit in, right? Nobody loves a loser. You’re probably too fat, too…” Down, down, down… “And what’s worse, if nobody loves you, and you don’t fit in, you won’t be successful, and you’re going to lose your job, and then you’ll die broke, unloved, and starving…” And here we are, right back at the bottom, fearing for our physical security, keeping ourselves silent because we’re afraid of being the next target in the corporate game of Whack-a-Mole. (Oh, and by the way, here’s a product that will make your skin better so that people will love you and you won’t die poor and alone.)

How do we counter this? How do we provide resilience against the story that nibbles all the way down from self-actualization to starvation, like an evil worm, emotional hydrofluoric acid? Ah! Now, we’re to parenting.

Remember, the end goal here is NOT to make your child go to sleep (no matter how tired you are, and no matter how funny Samuel L. Jackson is.) It is to provide a useable story line for the adult your child is eventually going to become. They need to know what they are really like. They need to learn to play to their strengths, acknowledge their weaknesses, and find a way in the world that best fits. We need to stop thinking in terms of “doctors, lawyers, NHL stars, and everybody else who didn’t make it.” Ivy league or nothing? I call bullshit. We need narratives of success that don’t confine it to the realm of the elite. When we say, “I really want my child to find something that they love and do it well,” we can’t secretly be thinking, “As long as it is one of the recognized professions and comes with lots of financial success.” And we can’t be the ones to determine what the answer to that riddle is. It’s completely subjective and we have to accept the story of the person who is living it.

Why Am I So invested in this? Why do I care about how other people are raising their kids? Why can’t I content myself with “mere success”?

This path I’m suggesting is my best guess of how to get to a more compassionate society. I’m not making that up; it’s based on several thousand years of Buddhist teachings. It is the ego that looks outside itself for propping up that is the source of oppression and suffering. The adult who has an accurate sense of self, of skills, capacities, and weaknesses, does not need constant mirroring. They don’t need to force others to conform to inflate their own sense of self-worth. And they aren’t susceptible to manipulation to confirm their continued existence. They are resilient. They play well in groups, and they are flexible in accepting positions of leadership and following as appropriate. They are more than responsible, they are effective.

This need I have to be seen as responsible is immature. It stems from a desire for praise, and is at root based in fear. It results in an endless deferment of the present for the sake of the future and undermines my ability to take action on the things I really believe in. It pushes me away from my own place in the world and into a caretaking role, supporting and bolstering the work of others so that they will like me. I recruit myself into the stories of others, rather than taking ownership of my own. (I’m also not very good at it, and I’m sorry if I’ve let you down over the years of trying to do this.) It’s exhausting, depleting, draining, and a whole lot of other negatives… even when I do actually believe in the work I’m supporting. It’s just… there are only so many hours in a life, and the time I spend on all of that diminishes the time I spend on my part. And I believe I have a part to play. It may never work, I may never gain much of an audience, I may keep writing a teeny tiny blog in the backwaters of the internet. And that’s fine, but only as long as I keep showing up. I may fail, but I’ll be damned if that’s going to keep me from trying.

I spent a good length of time with a friend of mine this week, talking through my story, talking through the common threads of my thinking about technology, engineers, science, corporations, discipline and resistance, solidarity, interdependence, ecofeminism, paganism, Buddhism, meditation, and yoga… among other things. Parenting, academics, being children in the ’70’s… all of it. It was a doozy of a conversation. At the end of it all, I said, “Hey! It is coherent. It just takes a long time to tell.” And I’m going to tell you, I’m moving beyond responsible now. Not sure to what, but That? That’s not enough.


  1. I’m not saying that there is no benefit to a university education, and I’m not suggesting that the professors don’t care. I’m quite specifically talking about critical thinking skills and the development of moral reasoning. Unfortunately, the research at the time indicated that the students who were good at it coming in were good at it going out, and the ones who weren’t showed very little change. Not the outcomes that they were looking for at all.
  2. I have my issues with Maslow, but lets consider it a useful heuristic for the moment. Try looking through this lens instead of that one.
  3. Maybe the university is doing OK with planting the seeds of critical thought even if the graduates don’t immediately demonstrate the desired outcomes. Maybe we need some nice LONG studies of graduate outcomes rather than just looking at what happens at the end of four years to people who are still in their early 20’s. Bah. For another time. (4)
  4. See why I have trouble staying on track? I keep changing my mind as I write. Even my footnotes have footnotes.
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