Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,


I was talking to a coworker about this earlier today, and I'm not sure I ever talked about it on LiveJournal.

I took a philosophy class in Existentialism as an undergraduate, and one thing in particular stuck with me about existentialism: the concept of personal responsibility.

Which has been coopted by politicians now, and I don't want to use the phrase because of the baggage strewn on top of it. But I don't know what better name to use.

I need to distinguish this from "responsible behavior". There is a meaning of responsibility that is "doing what you said you would" or even "doing what you're expected to do". When I clean my room, or do the laundry, or go to work, or complete the report I said I'd do, or finish writing my novel by 12/31 so that I make the goal I set for myself -- I am behaving responsibly. This is not at all what I mean by "personal responsibility".

It is not about doing the right thing. It is about acknowledging that whatever I do, right or wrong, it is because of my choices. It is not my parents' fault if I'm in class, because I could have skipped it if I really wanted to. It is not my boss's fault that I came to work, because I could quit if I chose to. Sometimes those choices suck. I may not want to choose between looking for a new job and working late at my current job.  For some people (not me), those choices may be really awful, like between getting killed yourself or killing someone else.

But for me, my choices have never been between awful things. I may be scared of the consequences, but when I think about them, the worst case scenario isn't "starved to death in a gutter" or "shot by an abusive ex" or whatever.

And I always found that idea of being responsible for my choices liberating. I was not in the thrall of teachers, parents, corporations, schools, managers, whomever. I am free to choose my own actions. Those choices may be constrained by various forces (the laws of physics for one) but I still get to make them. And within the space of those choices, I am free.

I don't know how to explain how much difference that made to me.  Because I was not only free to drop out of school and be homeless and shiftless if I wanted, but I was also free to stay and learn. I was free to own the choices I had been making all along. Once I acknowledged that it was my choice, it no longer troubled me as much that I was doing it. It made all the difference in the world.
Tags: philosophy
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