From a Buddhist perspective, personal responsibility is a delicate, almost paradoxical path to walk. On the one hand, you, and only you, can take responsibility for yourself, your actions, words, experience of reality. On the other, you are intimately and inexorably interconnected with others. As a society, we tend to have little trouble accepting each idea on its own and shouting its truth to the rooftops–conservatives justify the slashing of welfare on the premise of the former, and and liberals base the environmental movement on the latter. But reconciling these two ideas as equal parts of a greater whole is much trickier. Most politically polarizing issues in the U.S. are at a standstill precisely because each side clings to the most convenient ‘truth’ while ignoring the other side of its coin.
As individuals, doing our best to wade through the vicissitudes of everyday life, it becomes even trickier: while we may recognize personal responsibility and interconnectedness on a grander scale, we often forget them on a personal one–we may intellectually understand that we are the only ones who are responsible for our own reactions to others, but in practice, who hasn’t had the felt experience of blaming one’s pain on another person’s betrayal? We may understand in the abstract that everything we do affects others, but who hasn’t deluded themselves into believing that what they choose to eat for dinner either perpetuates or discourages food production practices?
It’s a challenging enough task to remind ourselves that we’re the ones responsible for our own lives or that what we do affects everyone else, much less to merge the two ideas into one integrated, concrete path. In the abstract, holding these truths in one’s mind simultaneously takes some mental gymnastics, but like most paradoxes, if you take the time to soak up the truth of each contradictory statement, you can begin to see the glimmer of a much richer statement that is more ‘true’ than either statement’s ‘truth’ alone. But what happens when we try to apply our abstract understanding to our concrete experience of living?
When I first encountered Buddhism several years ago, this idea of accepting responsibility for my own experience unlocked a subtly life changing shift in my perspective–not that I don’t still slip into the mindset of blaming external currents for my internal weather, but this deeply rooted acceptance, like the breath, is always there to bring me back, focus my attention, and label blame as mere ‘thinking’. What has been and continues to be a challenge is the other side of this coin–that though my interconnectedness to others is real, they are responsible for their own experiences. In other words, when what I must do has the capacity to negatively affect another, how do I proceed? On the face of it, the spirit of the bodhisattva vow, along with the golden rule, would seem to indicate that the thing to do is to always put others first, to refrain from action or deed that might hurt someone else. However, it can be a slippery slope from compassion to unremitting self-sacrifice. In fact, Buddhist teacher and founder of the Shambhala lineage, Chogyam Trungpa warns against this type of “idiot compassion” and advocates for a more substantive compassion that incorporates the dignity inherent in the Buddhist principle of meekness:
“Meek here does not mean being feeble…Whether others are hostile or friendly, the warrior of the meek extense a sense of friendliness to himself and mercy others…Modesty does not mean thinking of yourself as tiny or small. Modesty here means feeling true and genuine.”
In this light, the simplicity of simply putting others before myself breaks down. It is not showing “friendliness” to myself to go through life a martyr; it does not feel “true and genuine” to worry so much about the potential suffering (used in the Buddhist sense to cover the range of dissatisfaction inherent in the human condition, from discomfort to pain) I may cause that my own life is lived in a state of reactivity or paralysis.
Intellectually, I can see how these bits of felt truth and sound logic fit together. It makes a lot of sense to me that we cannot be truly generous to others unless we care for ourselves, and it feels true that attempting to manage the happiness of others to our own detriment goes far beyond simply acknowledging our interconnectedness, into the realm of fruitless delusion. Out here in my lived experience, however, my heart still flutters at the possibility that my words have been misinterpreted and potentially caused harm; the anticipation of blame still tightens in my chest when I contemplate removing myself from the orbit of unhealthy relationships. As usual, my mind has raced ahead and waits impatiently for my heart to catch up, all the while knowing, on some level, that this path would be much easier if they remembered they were one and walked in step.