Week 4

"Freedom and Responsibility"

by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship

You don’t have to spend very long on social media before it becomes clear that while everyone is in favor of freedom and responsibility, people mean very different things by those words. For some people, freedom is the right to be left alone to do as you wish. Rules and regulations are an affront against freedom, as are, it turns out, taxes. This view of freedom asserts that the world is at its finest when everyone is free to do as they wish—and government stays out of the way.

But for another set of people, freedom is less about being free from the limitations of rules and regulations, and more about the ability to fully express who you are. These people see “liberty and justice for all” as all one thing. If there is not justice, there is no liberty. For these folks, freedom comes when we dismantle racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, confining gender norms, etc. The 1970s children’s project “Free to Be… You and Me” describes this version of freedom.

It is much the same way with responsibility. The same group of people who believe that freedom means government getting out of the way tend to be the ones to interpret responsibility as people needing to take responsibility for themselves. If we do too much to shelter people from the harsher realities of life,  they would say, then people will lose initiative to take care of themselves and will become dependent on the system to support them.

I can see the point of this argument. We have all known people who seem to feel like the world owes them a favor, who don’t seem to want to step up to the plate and take responsibility.

But it will probably come as no surprise that I fall in among the people who think of responsibility rather differently. I don’t think you really understand what it means to be responsible until you start taking some responsibility for more than your own little life. Certainly, the whole idea of what it meant to be responsible changed drastically the moment I became a parent. Suddenly, working and paying my household bills seemed like a trivial task compared with the need to make sure that nutritious meals turned up on time, that baths and clean clothes and bedtime all happened at the appropriate moments, that enriching opportunities for learning and growth appeared—without my placing any pressure or agenda on my child.

And all those tasks are minor compared with the responsibility of providing just the right blend of openness and limits, of connection and independence, of work and play and rest. And we won’t even go into what it takes to maintain a loving composure in the face of two-year-old temper tantrums or a teen’s snide eye-rolling.

Being responsible for a child is a massive undertaking. But it’s only the beginning. Those of us who are truly responsible know that we have responsibilities to our neighbors. We clean up after our dogs, and shovel our sidewalks when it snows.

And if you’re going to participate in a democracy then you have a responsibility to make your vote count, to be informed, to weigh in on those matters that concern you, whether it be a traffic light in front of your local school or a giant oil pipeline running across your country. When tragedy hits across the world in the form of a hurricane or a tsunami and we reach out to help, we might realize that our responsibilities don’t end with the borders of our own particular country.

In fact, our responsibilities reach out across time as well as space. Do we not have some obligation to hand off to our children and our neighbors’ children an earth that is still hospitable and green, not to mention an education system that prepares the next generation for a future we can’t quite imagine?

Yes, I’m all in favor of personal responsibility. But I think we haven’t begun to touch our responsibilities until we’ve committed ourselves as broadly and deeply as possible to the health and well-being of all those whom our lives touch. And, for that matter, I’m all in favor of freedom, but a freedom that is rooted in relationship, in the understanding that our freedoms are tied together.

When you talk about freedom or responsibility as purely individual—the right to do as you wish and the responsibility to take care of yourself—you are not wrong, but you’re leaving out the biggest part of the picture. You are pretending that each of us is, in John Donne’s famous words, “an island.” And that is simply, factually, not true.

No one keeps the pollution they generate in a tidy little box under the bed. No one eats or works or drives or plays tennis or whatever without depending on an incredibly complex web of relationships that makes the whole thing possible. Freedom and responsibility may start with the individual, but there is just no way for them to end there.

Which makes the whole notion of freedom and responsibility far more complicated and difficult to figure out than the individualists would have us believe. It also makes those concepts far more beautiful and important and real and worthy of all our work and our wisdom.