Tag Archives: responsibility

Responsibility and Relationship

One of the things that I’ve found repeatedly comes up in literature about domestic abuse is that the abuser makes the victim responsible for their feelings. This is complicated, because to be in a relationship with someone is to hold responsibility, to a degree, for each other’s wellbeing. But what degree? How much responsibility should one person take for another and where is the line that crosses over into abuse? I realised I had absolutely no idea, so I sat down to try and figure it out rationally.

We are all responsible for our own behaviour. To act honourably is to take responsibility for what you do, and the consequences of what you do, both intended and unintended. That means if what you do impacts on someone in a negative way, then you hold some responsibility for it. Where emotions are concerned, not intending to hurt is frequently seen as a reason for the injured one to be at fault – you shouldn’t take it that way. (as previously explored) If we were talking about a physical situation, accidentally hurting someone because they have an old injury and we didn’t know, a bruise, a disability – I think most people would feel responsible then even though the physical pain caused was not intentional either. Emotional pain is the same. And equally, if something hurts us, we should be able to acknowledge it, because not being able to express pain is incredibly harmful.

I think the critical thing with the above scenarios, is that we’re talking about things people have control over. We’re asking people to take responsibility for things they can change – their behaviour, their assumptions, their ways of speaking. They can learn that we are hurt by this and adapt. If they care for us, they will not want to hurt us. A person who refuses to acknowledge that they have hurt you is not expressing care for you. Consider how you would expect them to behave if they had accidentally knocked you to the ground or trodden on your toes. This is the same.

However, consider “I am unhappy and you are responsible for this.” If it’s not about things that have, or have not been done, if it’s not offered with an explanation of how that responsibility can be taken, what that does is to cause pain. From my experience, this kind of approach is often subtle, which makes it harder. A person will present things they are unhappy about in a manner that suggests you are the one who must fix this, when in reality there is nothing you can do.

To express unhappiness about things that cannot be fixed is in and of itself fine. The death of a loved one being an obvious example. No one can make that better. But at the same time no one should be made to feel that they have a responsibility to make it better. My child worries about animal extinctions. He didn’t ask me to save the animals, but he shared his sadness, and I sponsored a tiger for him because it was something I could do to help. That’s a reasonable ask on his part, a healthy response on mine.

Stress, anxiety and depression are complicated, often irrational and illogical conditions. If a person is expressing experience of these, then if you are part of their life, it can be very easy to feel, or to be made to feel somehow responsible. I think the question is, can you do anything? If there is something you can actually do that genuinely makes a positive difference, there is scope for taking responsibility and it’s not necessarily abusive to be asked to be being responsible. If you are being made responsible, treated as responsible where you have no actual power to change things, then this is about abuse. It is about creating feelings of guilt and powerlessness in you and/or enabling the other person not to take responsibility for things they do have the power to tackle.

A request for help or an expression of need should focus on what the problem is and where the person you are asking to take responsibility for it can act. Power and responsibility have to go together. Power without responsibility is dishonourable. Responsibility without power is nightmarish and maddening. If one person has the power and the other bears the responsibility, then you’re moving out of relationship and into abuse.

You Shouldn’t Feel That Way

One of the least helpful things a person can do is tell someone else that they shouldn’t feel how they are feeling. No matter how well intentioned the comment, it never helps and is inherently harming. This is newly learned stuff for me. I have the right to feel however I am feeling. It does not matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient other people find those emotions, I am entitled to feel however I actually feel. I’ll play out some frequent ‘you shouldn’t feel that way’ scenarios in this blog and flag up the issues and better ways of handling them.

Because I didn’t mean it. This is useful information if it’s actually true. If you want it to be taken as such say sorry as well. Find out why the upset person took it the way they did and you will know more for next time. Maybe it was a communication breakdown. Maybe there are things you do not know. If you are asking them to hear that there was no intention to hurt then you have to hear that they ARE hurt and deal with that. An honourable person takes responsibility for the unintended consequences of their actions. An abusive person will use the line ‘you shouldn’t feel that way because I didn’t mean to hurt you’ and phrases like it to enable them to get away with abuse and to shift responsibility onto the victim. If you sincerely meant no harm, then it is vital to acknowledge when you have accidentally caused it.

You should be over it by now. Often applied to people who have not recovered from grief or anger. This is about the needs of the speaker, not the needs of the one who is upset. If what you mean is ‘I can’t cope with this,’ ‘I don’t understand why this is affecting you so much,’ or ‘I am not interested in how you feel’ then it is more honourable to acknowledge it is so. No one is obliged to deal with how someone else feels, and if you can’t cope it may be better to step back. If someone else’s feelings are uncomfortable or inconvenient to you, do not make them responsible for that. You can most certainly ask them to BEHAVE in a different way but not to FEEL in a different way.

Because it’s stupid/pointless/irrational/excessive/does not make sense to me. Just because you wouldn’t feel that way in the same circumstances, or do not understand the reaction you are seeing does not make it ok to invalidate the other person’s emotions. They are not you, and they feel differently. If you feel they are over-reacting, you will not change that by putting them down. Acknowledge how they feel, talk about the context with them. Be at least as willing to listen as to offer your opinion. They are allowed to respond differently to you. They have a different history, different emotional triggers, different issues and they perceive differently.

Because you’re upsetting me. When someone else’s emotions cause us pain it’s tempting to want to make them stop it. But again, start from the assumption that if you are entitled to feel upset right now, so are they, and a playground style ‘he started it’ won’t help. Expressing difficulty with behaviour is one thing – if someone is shouting, or hysterical then saying that you are upset by their behaviour is fine. They are responsible for how they manifest their emotions.

It is very hard to control how you feel – that’s part of the nature of emotions. We do have a fair amount of control over how we express them, and if all else fails it’s usually possible to walk away for a few moments and seek composure. Acting in the heat of emotion is seldom productive. Denying someone else the space to have their own feelings is abusive all by itself and leaves them vulnerable to further abuse. We all have the right to feel, and we never have the right to deny someone else their emotions. We have the right to ask others to handle their emotions with honour, and we have the duty to do the same ourselves, as far as is humanly possible. When someone says ‘you shouldn’t feel that way’ they are taking something precious away from the person on the receiving end. They are taking away that person’s confidence that they are entitled, and allowed to feel. It is a rubbishing of a person’s most essential self, and never, ever ok. I’ve been on the wrong end of this too many times and from here onwards am taking a zero tolerance policy. I am not going to be told how I should, or should not feel and I am not going to trust anyone who thinks they are entitled to do that. Knowing what it does to a person, I will not let this one go unchallenged any time I encounter it.

Speaking for Pagans

(With thanks to Berriscient, whose comment today prompted this post.)

Usually I’m very careful to caveat what I write with ‘most pagans’ or ‘a lot of Druids’ because experience to date suggests that there are always exceptions to everything. And I like caveating. It’s actually rare I’ll say ‘this is so’ without some kind of ‘in my opinion’ or ‘but only when the wind blows from the north east’ kind of tag on it.

No one can speak for all pagans, we’re such a disparate lot, no one could begin to imagine how we all feel and think (oh damn, am I speaking for all of us in saying that? Am I poised to fall into some kind of logical vortex?)

But then there are pagan folk who, by accident or design end up with some kind of public profile. If there’s a pagan news story in the UK, you can bet someone will call up Ronald Hutton and Emma Restall Orr to get their take on it, at the very least. We didn’t vote them in to speak for us, but their writing, their work, and their being good with the media means they get more of a voice than Joe-regular-pagan. Other folks find on a more local level that they become popular with local media. I’ve seen it happen to friends. I had Radio Hereford and Worcester phoning me up to comment on Stonehenge news articles… the world is a strange place.

There’s also the issue of folks who are present and active on boards, interfaith groups, public bodies, blogs… any of whom can and will be taken by those who encounter them as the face of paganism. Whether they want the job or not. If you are the only Druid in the village, then the village will judge Druids based on what they see of you.

Where possible, I try to make it as clear as I can that I’m speaking for myself. Sometimes I’ll talk from experience of what others have said and done. Just every now and then, I’ll go out on a limb and say things along the lines of ‘if paganism isn’t like this already, then it bloody well should be.’ I’ve been in positions where my words might be seen as representing pagan organisations (The PF and The Druid Network). Currently I don’t belong to anyone else, there’s no outfit I’ll bring into immediate disrepute if I say something too wild… but I think about every statement, every word, not just as expressions of my own opinion, but as things that might have wider impact. After all, I’ve no way of knowing who might read this or where it might go. I’ll go out on a limb and say in my experience, most pagans do not seem to be as self conscious as I am about what they say and do. Not if what I’ve seen on boards and social networking sites is anything to go by.

Who has the right to speak on behalf of the pagan community? We all do. We also have responsibilities if we do so. Everything we do, and say, can and might be taken by others as evidence of what paganism is like. In every aspect of our lives, we are potential ambassadors, or saboteurs. We all speak for paganism, every day. Whether or not the media eye is upon us, we either walk our talk for the people around us to see, or we don’t. We either speak with wisdom and honour, or we don’t. Pagans are never going to agree on everything or speak with one clear voice (how scary would that be, if we did…?) because we are people, and people are a diverse lot and should not be boxed up too much. But that doesn’t mean we should be silent, either, or afraid to disagree with each other in public.

Responsibility

It’s a word I throw into essays a lot. To be free requires taking responsibility. To be honourable calls for it too. Owning our actions, the consequences of them – intended and unintended and everything arising from our inaction as well. It’s big, scary and overwhelming, but facing up to it is essential if you want control of your life and the option at least of living honourably. What we don’t take responsibility for, we are powerless to do anything about.

However, there are people who society deems unable to take responsibility for themselves. Children, and the mentally unwell are the biggest group, along with some folks who have learning difficulties. People in comas can’t take responsibility either. At first glance, this makes a fair amount of sense. In reality, there are a lot of grey areas.

Let’s start with children. They all mature at different rates, with varying abilities to cope with ideas of right and wrong. At eight, my son is more morally aware and more inherently responsible than a fair few adults, but the law will not view him as such. It would be insane to make laws pinning down who can take responsibility for what, when, because each person is different, but that’s what we’ve got. Some adults never become morally aware, so where does that leave them?

What happens when someone not legally able to take responsibility for themselves becomes a threat to themselves, or others? What happens when a child commits murder? Every now and then, one does. What happens when a child becomes a persistent, abusive criminal? Are they responsible? Are their parents? There are no clear cut answers here. If a person with mental health issues behaves in antisocial ways, is that the same as a ‘well’ person doing it? Who is responsible if an adult goes off the rails and becomes unable to manage their own behaviour?

Back when humans lived in small groups, we must have related to these issues in a very different way. A group of humans has shared responsibility for everyone in it. I suspect the solutions to members who became dangerous were not as compassionate as we moderns might like to imagine they should be, but they were probably a lot more decisive. What we don’t have now is any sense that we, as humans, share responsibility with those around us, for each other. When there are issues, it comes down to systems, rules and officialdom, and from what I’ve seen, that’s not especially compassionate either.