In the fictional town of Lake Woebegone featured on the long-time public radio program “Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor, there is a Catholic church called Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. I smile every time I hear the church’s name because of how the phrase “perpetual responsibility” sums up the way I often feel like I am perpetually responsible for way too much. I thought of the church name again recently after I wrote that all the children of the Pelicans (our anniversary group) have turned into “responsible adults” despite our concerns for some of them while they were children, adolescents and young adults. Why didn’t I say they had turned into caring adults, or successful adults, or generous adults? Why did I hone in on responsibility?
Responsibility has always been a high value for me. Both my parents valued responsibility and they instilled a heavy dose of it in my brothers and me. Responsible people are in many ways the salt of the earth. They get things done; they are productive; they are punctual. They can be counted on to do what they say will do, usually without needing to be reminded repeatedly. They take care of themselves and don’t expect others to run to their rescue if they do something stupid that gets them in trouble. They acknowledge their mistakes and accept the consequences of those mistakes without complaining or blaming other people for them. The world works a lot better when people are responsible. What’s not to like?
Responsibility has an ugly side to it, however, which is why it’s on my mind right now. Being a responsible person can bring out one’s tendency toward perfectionism – always needing to do more, always feeling like you’re not doing enough, always feeling like what you’ve done isn’t good enough. Placing a high value on responsibility can turn a person into something of a control freak – always fussing at others to live up to their responsibilities, not being able to delegate tasks because you think you can do them better yourself and be sure they will get done.
In my case, placing a high value on responsibility is closely linked to my tendency toward anxiety. When I don’t have control over something for which I feel responsible, my anxiety intensifies sharply. This was true during my parenting years – especially when I was parenting young adults. I still felt responsible for my children – for their physical and emotional welfare, for guiding them toward good choices, for financially supporting them to a greater or lesser extent depending on their circumstances. But because they were young adults, I had very little if any control over what they did. When they made bad choices, I felt responsible but I couldn’t stop them from making those choices. It was a recipe for a long period of significant anxiety. I knew they were responsible for their own choices as adults, but because of my over-developed and perhaps warped sense of responsibility, I felt like I had failed. I couldn’t separate those things for which I really was responsible as a parent from those I could let go once my children were adults and responsible for themselves.
Recently, I’ve been experiencing another bout of anxiety associated with feeling responsible but not having as much control as I’d like. An occupational hazard for editors and writers and anyone who does any kind of event planning is the need to meet deadlines. I pride myself on being responsible and reliable about meeting deadlines; when I tell someone I will do something by a certain time or date, you can usually count on me to make the deadline. As the editor of a number of publications, I work with writers all the time. Most of the time, my writers meet the deadline I give them, but sometimes, I have to send multiple reminders and extend the deadline. The only control I have is through those reminders, and ultimately through the decision to go ahead without the article, which is my prerogative and responsibility as editor. Occasionally, I never get the article, despite assurances from writers that I’ll receive the article the next day (sort of a variation on “the check is in the mail”!). Then it never comes, not even after I send additional reminders and give ultimatums. Of course, such situations throw off my publication schedule, leave copy holes I have to fill, and don’t make me particularly happy, but I’ve learned to go more with the flow. If the summer issue of a publication doesn’t actually hit the street, so to speak, until fall, does it really matter in the great scheme of things?
The problem comes when the final deadline is something that cannot be changed – like a scheduled event for which the publication is required. In the current situation causing me anxiety, I feel overall responsibility for making sure the publication is completed on time, but over the last several months, I have had very little control. I’m not one of the writers, I’m not the editor, I’m not the designer, I’m not the printer – I’m just the manager in these late stages of the process toward final publication in time for an event in a couple weeks. At many points along the way, there have been snafus and delays, none of which have been my fault. At this point, I am becoming more confident that everything will be completed in time, but if it’s not, I know I am going to feel a great weight of responsibility for the failure to make the deadline. It will not be the end of the world (despite someone’s assertion that it would be “disastrous”), but it certainly feels like it will be a reflection on me as a responsible person who does what she says she’s going to do. The downside of the high value I place on responsibility rears its ugly head again.
Nothing about the curse of being a responsible person makes me want to be irresponsible or dilutes my view that being responsible is a good thing. Where would we be if everyone were irresponsible? But I do need to curb my tendency to assume responsibility for things that are out of my control and let go. A long time ago, I saw a cute little aphorism, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” Given my sense of responsibility, I resonated immediately; on second thought, however, I see it as extremely burdensome. Surely I don’t have to be responsible for everything! I suppose it’s like that passage in Galatians 6, where in the space of three verses, Paul tells his readers to “bear one another’s burdens” and then says, “all must carry their own loads.” Which is it? Probably both: I am responsible for myself (carry my own load), but I should also be able to count on others to help me (bear one another’s burdens) and be responsible for themselves. Together we’ll make things happen. The truth is, “If it is to be, it is up to us.”