Understanding Emotional Responsibility, Part II
Last week, I wrote an article called “Understanding Emotional Responsibility.” This article is a follow-up, but I’ll sum the previous one up for you here so you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to:
What we call “emotional responsibility,” or saying, “I take responsibility for how I feel and don’t blame you for it” is rooted in a belief that our feelings are independent of someone else’s actions. What we call “emotional projection,” or saying “You take responsibility for how I feel and I do blame you for it” is rooted in a belief that our feelings are dependent on someone else’s actions.
Both are true. Neither is the point of emotional responsibility. Responsibility just means “ability to respond” to a given situation. We cannot change the past. All we can choose is how we respond to what is happening now, and we all have different abilities to respond to a given situation. Having power over others creates a greater ability to respond. Circumstances that cause someone to be out of control of their own emotional responses — such as being triggered, phobic or addicted — limit one’s ability to respond.
We typically think of “responsibility” as two things: fault, and duty. But neither fault, nor duty, actually exist. All that exists is ability to respond.
Fault Doesn’t Exist, Because We Are Dependent
So here’s the thing… fault doesn’t actually exist. No one is completely at fault for causing anything. At all. Ever. Everything causes everything.
Let’s say a man murders a woman in cold blood. Pre-meditated, the whole kit and caboodle. Cut and dry, right? But that murderer faced years of traumatic childhood abuse, and never had health insurance and therefore couldn’t go to therapy, and was conditioned by a system of patriarchy that, combined with other factors in his life, made him hate women and blame them for his own pain. The guy who cut him off in traffic on his way to the woman’s house didn’t crash into him and kill him. A hundred thousand circumstances arose along the way that, perhaps if they had been responded to differently, would have averted the murder.
Whose fault is it?
I also wrote this article called “Why We Play the Victim.” So you don’t have to read it, it basically says: we create, or at least curate, our own realities. We are also not in complete control over them. Sometimes we are victims of circumstances, and sometimes we are conscious creators of our circumstances. Even if you chalk up poverty to an unconscious resistance to abundance, as long as that resistance remains unconscious, you might as well call it capitalism.
On an emotional level, a victim is someone who feels disempowered and unable to change their circumstances. We are all, in some ways, victims of circumstance. We didn’t even consciously choose to be alive. We didn’t consciously choose where we were born, we didn’t decide our families, we didn’t choose to be abused, oppressed, starved, imprisoned, raped, beaten, or impoverished.
There are some in the spiritual world who would say we do choose into our incarnations, to which I can only say: maybe? but as long as that choice remains feeling unconscious while we’re in these incarnations, you might as well call it random.
Everyone is, in some ways, a victim: out of control, powerless, helpless.
Duty Doesn’t Exist, Because We Are Independent
Everyone is, in some ways, an agent: in control, powerful, responsible. Response-able. Able to respond. That’s all responsibility means.
Duty doesn’t actually exist either. You are not actually obligated to do anything, at all, ever. No one can completely force you to do something in exactly the way they want you to. Even if someone grabs your arm and punches you in the face with it, they cannot control what you’re thinking or looking at while they do it. Nobody has complete power over anyone else. No one is entirely dependent.
No one is actually obligated to do anything. Laws and rules just make it more difficult to do or not do things, so they condition our behavior towards doing certain things and not doing others.
But we still feel obligated. We still feel duty. The feeling of it is real, even if the thing itself isn’t. The closest thing we actually have to obligation is to meet our own needs. We are not independent of our urges to meet our needs. When starving, we cannot just stop trying to eat. When cold, we cannot just stop trying to get warm. When isolated, we cannot just stop trying to find connection. If we stop, we’ll die. No one is entirely independent.
You’re probably thinking — slow down, Ayn Rand! You’re only responsible to your Rational Self-Interest, is that what you’re getting at here?
No! What I’m getting at is an actual understanding of power to meet needs, and what that says about responsibility. We are not independent; we are interdependent. We do not always have the greatest ability to respond to our own needs. We can be limited by power and by consciousness.
Power and Consciousness
People have different levels of power over each other. Parents have more power than children. Governments and rich people have more power than citizens and poor people.
People have different levels of consciousness in their actions. Not every action is taken deliberately from a reasonable frame of mind. Some people have strong emotional responses to certain triggers, some people have strong phobias, some people have compulsions or addictions. Everyone has some form of trigger that causes heightened responses, and everyone has some form of power over another person, even if the situations aren’t as cut-and-dry as the examples above.
The Bugs and the Beez
Many of my neighbors in Oakland live in tents on the sidewalk. Many of them want houses but can’t afford them. Many of them lost housing due to rising costs of living in the East Bay and houseless people being driven out of San Francisco and the situation may have been compounded through mental health difficulties or addictions or other factors, and at the end of the day: houses cost money. They don’t have very much money.
Jeff Bezos has more money than anybody else. Jeff Bezos has a greater ability to respond to their want for houses than they do. Jeff Bezos could buy every unhoused person in Oakland a house, in Oakland, and still have plenty of money left over to clone his penis and express ship it to the moon or whatever it is he’s doing now. To my knowledge, Jeff Bezos has yet to buy any of my neighbors a house. He probably doesn’t feel like it’s his duty to, but duty doesn’t exist. He hasn’t bought anyone a house, and neither has Warren Buffett, and neither have the Koch brothers, and neither has the City of Oakland, and the harm done by precarious living situations continues.
My old roommate had a phobia of bed bugs: an irrationally strong fear of a particular stimulus. This was in Brooklyn, and she’s had three disgusting bug infestations to date. It makes sense, even if it now has become irrational. I bought a bunch of used furniture because it was cheap, but it was a bit gross. I checked it for bed bugs and there weren’t any. All the same, she had an anxiety attack and refused to let me bring it in the house.
At first I was angry at her for being so irrational, until I realized that she was not able to consciously control her response. It’s a phobia, it’s not supposed to be rational. Instead of punishing her, I left the furniture outside, let her calm down, and asked if she’d help me pay for new furniture at Ikea as she had more money than I did. She said yes, we had a lovely trip to Ikea together, and the situation was resolved. It wasn’t her duty, and it wasn’t her fault, and we both accepted responsibility (our ability to respond) and the harm was remedied as we moved forward.
What these examples have in common is that they focus not on fault or duty, both of which don’t exist, but on ability to respond to the situation.
Jeff Bezos has more money, and therefore, more power to take actions. He is more able to respond. My roommate had a phobia, and therefore, less ability to be conscious in her actions. She was less able to respond.
Beyond Punishment and Reward
Responsibility is ultimately about relationships: who responds to whom, and how. Society is a whole bunch of relationships. Societal “rules” and “systems” arise from, and also condition, these relationships. You could think about systems and personal relationships like gravity and mass — with mass arises gravity, and gravity influences the behavior of mass. When lots of personal relationships arise, so do systems, systems influence the behavior of people across those relationships. Like planets, I don’t think people are always conscious of when and how they create systems. Unlike planets, people have the capacity to become aware of what the systems are conditioning them to do, and to use their actions to unlearn that systemic conditioning and work to build something different.
As we grow more conscious of our thoughts and actions, we have more power to shape ourselves and our surroundings.
Not only is our legal system of “justice” a system, but our ideas about what justice is are also a system: a pattern of behavior that goes on to shape behavior. Our systems condition, but do not entirely control, our behavior.
The question is — What kinds of behavior do we want our systems to encourage?
If one of my unhoused neighbors stole an iPad from a car, should they go to jail? They cannot stop needing to meet their needs. Those needs include things that require money, times being what they are. They don’t have much money. Their housing precarity vastly reduces their ability to get a steady, paying job. Perhaps the iPad was their only tool to get their needs met. Perhaps the iPad was in a Tesla that belonged to Jeff Bezos, who could lose that iPad but still have enough money to buy millions of iPads, upload photos of his penis to all them, and express ship them all to the moon.
Who is able to respond, and in what ways?
Our fallacious belief in fault and duty has given us a fixation on punishment and reward. We believe that responsibility lies in the past, in what we should have done differently, instead of where it actually lies: here, in the present.
The deed is done. The harm has been suffered. Now zoom out to look at the greater picture. Where did the harm come form? What was the harm? Who was harmed? Was it only the “victim,” or is it more complex than that?
But most importantly: what can be addressed now to reduce the impact of that harm and prevent it from continuing or worsening in the future?
This is the philosophy behind transformative justice: transforming the harm done to the betterment of all, rather than laying fault at the feet of one point in an infinite data set, slapping an arbitrary punishment down and calling it justice.
If we must have laws and rules, then why do they focus so strongly on further punishing those already disempowered by an unfair crapshoot incarnation lottery? Which is a better use of our property laws: housing, feeding and caring for all people and the planet, or ensuring Jeff Bezos can maintain enough money to send his penis to the moon (or whatever else he may want to do with more money than half of the planet combined)?