The dangers in taking on too much responsibility
This article was originally published in the August 22, 2014 edition of “The Dallas Morning News”. This is the fourth essay about the retirement travel adventure I have written for the folks at DMN and I hope to make this a habit!
From the moment we are born, humans are encouraged to take on an ever increasing amount of responsibility. As children, we learn to be responsible for our toys, to clean our room and to help with a few chores. As we mature, society demands that we retain our responsibilities but discard our childish things and take on more responsibilities. As we move through life, we are taught to blindly believe that progressively assuming more and more responsibilities, no matter how little they contribute to the quality of our lives, somehow makes us a better citizen, a better neighbor or a better person.
Society couldn’t function unless people with ability take care of their own basic responsibilities, but there does come a point where our effectiveness and happiness are diminished by the empty responsibilities we blindly assume. The assumption of responsibility has become so natural, frequent and subtle that we don’t question the obligations we take on.
In moderation, responsibility is a good thing. People should be responsible for their actions and emotions, and they shouldn’t look outside of themselves for happiness. But there comes a point where more responsibility results in diminishing returns.
The origins of the word responsibility are a bit murky. Some argue that the word comes from the Latin respondére, as in “answerable to.” Others argue that the root of the word is the more English “response-able” — meaning more simply “able to respond to.” The modern dictionary definition of responsibility calls it “a duty or obligation” “answerable to or accountable.” However you look at the origins, responsibility and “response-ability” are antonyms — words with opposite meanings: Being held accountable for something and being free to respond are clearly two different beasts.
Consider this. In the 1950s, what many consider America’s golden age, the size of the average single-family house was 983 square feet. In 2004, the average home had grown to 2,349 square feet while at the same time, average family size had shrunk. We were, we thought, becoming more prosperous — and perhaps, at some point, we were.
Eventually, however, increasing home sizes and the commensurate responsibilities resulted in many of us transferring our prosperity and a lot of our “response-ability” to mortgage bankers, insurance companies and home builders. As a result, we started spending less time with our families and friends and more time maintaining our houses.
It was subtle, but we were transferring what should have been our security to third parties and our time to maintaining our property. It is instructive to know that the savings rate in the 1950s was around 10 percent; it is now about half of that. More debt, less savings, less “response-ability.”
Empty responsibility means that not only are we saving less, we also have less of ourselves to give to those who matter. Having the responsibility of an out-of-proportion house not only takes our time but separates us from one another. Family members not only have their own bedrooms and bathrooms, but their own televisions and, more and more, their own separate lives. We are losing track of our family members and by extension our “response-ability” to them.
It isn’t always as obvious as a mortgage. Often, it comes in the form of smaller things. Ever read all of the fine print for a cellphone contract? I haven’t, either. But I guarantee that the company you are pledging a few years’ worth of payments to, and therefore your time required to earn the money to make those payments, is a lot more concerned about making you responsible to them than they are in ensuring you have any “response-ability.”
Every time you click “I agree” when you buy a new piece of software, you are increasing your responsibility and decreasing your “response-ability.” Want to add additional cable channels or get a slightly lower but still usurious interest rate on your credit cards? Be prepared to increase your responsibility and decrease your “response-ability.” These little responsibilities sneak up on us almost without thought.
And it isn’t just financial. Ultimately, time is our most precious resource, yet it is often one we give away without much thought. How many of us take on responsibilities out of a misplaced sense of obligation? How often do we give our time to things that are really little more than distractions? It’s not that we shouldn’t devote our time to worthy projects, it’s that there are endless worthy projects out there. We must choose carefully the ones that mean the most to us. By committing to one project, you are also saying no to a whole host of others. Consider wisely and choose carefully.
Even children these days are encouraged to have their calendars filled with so many activities that they barely have time to respond to, or even notice, the wonderful things that come to them. From school to sports, from social events to service projects, many children are becoming overwhelmed. (Not to mention what it’s doing to their parents’ schedules.) It is impossible to see the beauty in the world when we are constantly blinded by a mind-numbing amount of activity; yet we are teaching our children that it is OK to go through life in a rush.
We’re living in an age that glorifies busy. Somewhere along the line, many of us became too busy for friends, too busy to read, too busy to enjoy our hobbies — too busy to sleep. We are too burdened with responsibilities and too cash-strapped to take time out for vacations, and too busy to look for work that could make things better. We work more and more hours to pay for our seeming endless capacity to take on more responsibility — and the right to smugly complain about how busy we are.
For some people, busyness is an aphrodisiac. For others it is a welcome distraction from the quandaries we have put ourselves in. Too much busyness causes stress and blinds us to the many wonderful things life has to offer. If we have the trappings of success, but through our lack of “response-ability” have eliminated the time to enjoy them, has this pressure made us any happier?
Whatever the reasons you find yourself too busy, it’s time to take your life back. Once we meet a certain threshold, taking on more responsibility only ties our hands, makes us feel overwhelmed and renders us less productive, less able to respond. It’s time to realign our obligations toward things we are truly passionate about.
People engaged in activities they enjoy are generally happier than people who are idle — and there are plenty of enjoyable activities, such as exercise and hobbies, that don’t require taking on excessive responsibility. When we take time to ease out of our default consumerist mode — where we believe we are entitled to a fancier this or a bigger that — we can instead allow ourselves to believe we are entitled to slow down and take back control of our lives.
Again, I am in no way saying that a manageable amount of responsibility is always a bad thing. Nor should we shirk our responsibilities. A rational amount of responsibility is the glue that holds societies together. But an irrational amount of trivial responsibility can tear it apart. If we take or are given responsibility along with “response-ability,” great things can be accomplished.
We need to use our common sense to say, “Halt, enough.” Start re-evaluating things. Think before we pile additional, even small, responsibilities on ourselves. Examine more closely how responsibilities add quality to our lives. Learn to guard and value our “response-abilities” as much as we do our responsibilities.
We only get one shot at life. Wouldn’t it be great if we took the time to enjoy it?