Running From Responsibility

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At the superficial level the reason people shirk responsibility is that responsibility implies hard work and implies the possibility of being blamed for bad outcomes. But at the deeper existential level we have to understand the powerful role that anxiety plays. Shirking responsibility acts as an anxiety reducer.

Responsibility means the ability to respond. So in this sense the more responsibility we have, the more freedom we have. The less responsibility, the less freedom. Kierkegaard once wrote that anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. When we have myriad possibilities in front of us existential anxiety bubbles up. This is not only because uncertainty and doubt enter the picture but also because we know at some level of awareness that choosing one route necessarily means the symbolic death of all of those other possible routes.

In essence, telling ourselves we’re not responsible for what’s happening to us, that we don’t have any power to choose amongst various courses of action but instead must simply wait for something or someone in the external environment to decide our fates for us, is a sneaky way to reduce the painful anxiety cued off by the dizziness of freedom.

Our life situations might not be ideal, might be far from ideal, but when we can convince ourselves that there’s absolutely nothing we can do to change them, when we can convince ourselves that we have no responsibility in the matter, we at least get the painful existential anxiety cued off by the dizziness of freedom under control.

Of course we pay an enormous existential price for this strategy. The tradeoff is not worth it. We put ourselves in a box of our own making where we miss out on our one and only chance to grow and self-actualize in our own unique way. We miss the opportunity to exert our own will over our destiny, to have some influence over who and what we become.

And the sad reality is that there’s another, healthy way to reduce the anxiety caused by the dizziness of freedom that’s every bit as effective as shirking responsibility, and this is to have the courage to choose one possibility amongst myriad possibilities with the whole of our being and then go after it with everything we have. Anxiety, that dread caused by the threat of the symbolic death of all those other possibilities, only exists before the choice is made. After it’s made those other possibilities fall by the wayside and die off. We must grieve them but we no longer feel anxiety about them because there’s no longer any uncertainty there, there’s no longer any threat of them disappearing.