Personal Responsibility and the Locals in Rome

Personal responsibility is a funny thing. Many people simply do not recognize it as a value anymore. In fact, it’s so commonly uncommon, political pundits frequently use the sense (or more precisely, the lack of) of personal responsibility as a talking point to support their propaganda. And they’re often right.

That said, it is not extinct. There are some individuals whose sense of personal responsibility is core to who we are. The Clifton Strengths Finder 2.0 even includes it as a possible strength, though they truncate “personal responsibility” to simply “responsibility.” They define it as an individual’s nature to “take psychological ownership of what they say they will do.” Sounds familiar…

As is the case with many strengths, those of us who possess a strong sense of personal responsibility have a tendency to expect it from others in like quality and quantity to our own. While personal responsibility is a character trait that should be present in all adults, me expecting it from others in the same manner that I have it would be like Mozart expecting me to appreciate all the subtle dynamics, voices, and nuances of Requiem to the same degree that he does. Sure, I can naturally walk with him to a point, but there will come a point when he’s still operating in a strength, and I’m fumbling, lost in the woods. In the case of unreasonable expectations of personal responsibility, the result is a demeanor that comes off as haughty, often hypocritical, and, interestingly enough, somewhat imperialistic.

Also the case with strengths, it is easy to use personal responsibility as a crutch. For me, it’s been more of a safety net. I’ve been utilizing my sense of personal responsibility as a shield to protect my soft and gooey interiors, ironically enough, from the weight of the world and the implications of my decisions.

Like most people with this character strength, I tend to try to “own” anything I take part in. I want to be the team lead; I want to be the head of the household; I want to be the product owner; I want to be the small group leader; I want to manage the project. It’s not a power trip, but a shield. It ensures that if a mistake is made, I’m able to address it with a strength.

After all, if it’s my neck to wring, if my head is on the chopping block, I can simply say, “if things don’t work, take it out on me.” If things go sour, it’ll suck, but it’ll at least be coming down on me, which means my role in the situation requires something I can deliver naturally and well. If someone else’s neck is on the line, and things go sour, my role becomes one of a helper, a comforter, an empathizer. And empathy has always been a completely strange, foreign element to me. I’ve intellectually assessed it; I can describe its characteristics and cite excellent examples (I married one). But I do not understand it. I am generally incapable of “putting myself in someone else’s shoes.” I’m expected to survive where I know not the language of the locals. “When in Rome, wait– what the heck are those people doing?”

What God has been showing me is that, despite my personal responsibility, other people are impacted by my decisions and my mistakes. I had intellectually assessed that truth, but it’s becoming a heartfelt revelation. And it’s dreadfully gripping.

In ways I might not expect, other people may have to reap my harvest alongside me. Or perhaps even without me. This is particularly close to home already, but with a child on the way (yay!), this is some heavy stuff. Going through Wild at Heart and talking to Sarah about Captivating (which I plan on reading once I’m done with Wild at Heart), it’s become obvious to me that, as a father, I can (and unfortunately will) inflict wounds in my children that only God can heal.

And it doesn’t require malice or ill intent. I might just have a brief selfish moment or a long selfish season. I might make a bad judgement call or simply drop the ball, despite the best of intentions. And it doesn’t require a spouse or children. Those who reap my harvest might be unrelated to me, even unknown to me. I have it in my capacity to destroy families, lead Christians astray, and tarnish the message of the Gospel to the unsaved. With His timing and miraculous power, God can work around any mistake I make, but I cannot deny the pain and suffering I can cause.

No amount of me saying, “just dock my pay” or “chalk it up to experience” or “count it against me” will diminish what I’ve done to other people. My post-mortem responsibility cannot save them. I can offer to be accountable (and I am), but the impact on others remains.

And I may have been quick to carry a heavy load because it was in my strength to do so, but that may make for a heavier load for those other people who might be left fumbling, lost in the woods of my harvest.

So now I’m finding myself needing to weigh those sorts of things into my decisions.

  • If I die tomorrow, who has to carry my weight?
  • If I drop this ball, who will be impacted by it?
  • If I continue sowing in this sin, who else will reap the deathly harvest?

I’m starting to think that maybe this is the beginning of empathy. Maybe Romans won’t be foreigners much longer.