As I hung it recently on my new office wall, I noticed again perhaps the most significant feature of my Emory & Henry College diploma. Beyond the paragraph proclaiming that I earned a degree, or the attractive frame my parents bought, or even the little gold seal signifying that I graduated with honors, the most crucial part of the document may be a single word.
An Emory & Henry College diploma specifies that the graduate is awarded a degree “with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities thereunto appertaining.” That single word, “responsibilities,” makes it clear that my diploma is not merely a celebration of accomplishment but also a benediction for the rest of my life. Because of that one word, my diploma doesn’t merely say, “You did it!” It also asks, “Now, what are you going to do?”
I appreciate the word because it is a motivator. It is a constant beckoner. It perpetually causes us to ask how we will live and who we will be in the present and future, rather than allowing us to rest upon the laurels or wallow in the ashes of who we have been in the past.
Well over half of my life has passed since the college entrusted me with those responsibilities, and because they have been my companions for so long, I have become protective of responsibilities, almost as if they’re family.
Lately, I find I’m more defensive than protective, because frankly, responsibilities are endangered in our nation and culture today.
The same is not true of responsibilities’ neighbors on my diploma, the more beloved rights and privileges. We cherish our rights. We cling to our privileges. I wonder why we so vigorously avoid responsibilities?
Perhaps we have unconsciously agreed upon too narrow a definition of responsibility. We too closely associate responsibility with fault or blame, as in when we ask, “Who is responsible for this mess?”
In the world of bipartisan politics, where I find very little that is creative or constructive these days, this is the preferred understanding of responsibility. Partisans of opposite persuasions are glad to assign responsibility–by which they mean fault or blame–to the other party or ideology. Rather than offering a compelling vision for a better future, each party is content to grasp for higher ground in public esteem by describing how the other party is “responsible” for all that is wrong around us.
When this is our understanding of responsibility, we tend to assume a critical tone, seeking at once to excoriate others and exonerate ourselves. No wonder we would avoid this kind of responsibility. No one wants to be wrong or at fault! No one likes to bear the blame.
The etymology of responsibility, however, points us back to the Latin verb respondere, which means “to answer,” or “to respond.” So, I guess we could justify a critical tone and seek responsibility by asking, “Who will answer for this mess?” Just as easily and legitimately, however, we may choose an an earnest, inquisitive, compassionate tone and believe that the more appropriate, productive, responsible questions are, “Who will respond to this mess? Who has an answer to this problem?”
Have you ever pressed the button or raised the telephone receiver for customer assistance in a big box store? It’s not uncommon in that circumstance to hear a voice over the house speakers indicating that a customer needs assistance, closely followed by the question, “Who is responding?”
Let that be a lesson in responsibility for us. That retailer isn’t blaming its associates that I don’t know where to find an item; the voice simply wants to know who’s responding to the call for help. The same concept is true with the civic servants we call “first responders.” In the heat of danger or crisis, we’re glad and grateful that they’re answering–responding to–the call for help.
From its roots in respondere, perhaps responsibility really is as simple as offering ourselves to respond to the call for help, to seek the answer to our common question, to work together for a solution, rather than merely (and lazily) assigning blame.
Again, though, responsibilities struggle for acknowledgement and even survival alongside their much more popular neighbors, rights and privileges.
Lately, I’ve been heartbroken by often belligerent and seemingly self-centered social media posts and comments justifying and rationalizing the refusal to wear a mask in the COVID-19 pandemic as an exercise of individual rights. Where responsibilities ask who will respond or answer the call to seek a solution to our common crisis, rights lure us to answer, “Not I. It is my right to refuse a mask. I am not to blame or at fault (responsible) for another’s exposure or infection.”
Similarly, my heart hurts when we cling to privilege, often failing to see it, and denounce or decry others’ efforts and struggles for social injustice or racial inequality. We can’t hear responsibility asking us who will respond because privilege cries out, “I never owned a slave. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I am not to blame or at fault (and therefore responsible) for injustice.”
When privileges are named and challenged, those who enjoy them might even convince themselves that they are becoming the oppressed! Just that easily, a perceived threat to our privileges begins to feel like an encroachment upon our rights! In our agitation over what we stand to lose, we feel no inclination or incentive to join others’ struggles for equality. If anything, we feel instigated to oppose them.
By their very nature, rights and privileges–which we feel we have earned or deserve, or to which we feel entitled–can lead us to a place of self-centeredness or self-interest from which it is difficult even to perceive injustice. We can become unsympathetic, unempathetic, uncompassionate, and simply unable to see the injustice or inequality others endure.
There’s the danger of rights and privileges. They give us permission to assert what we deserve, which can lead to insistence upon self, diminishing and threatening any sense of community we might feel. Their less popular counterweights are responsibilities, which encourage us to ask what we can contribute to society, to focus on what we can give and not merely upon what we might get.
The one to whom I strive to offer my absolute devotion said, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Maybe that’s another way of saying that the one with many rights and privileges also has many responsibilities.
In just a few days, my daughter Grace will become a first-year student at Emory & Henry College, and over the next four years, I hope and trust that she will learn many lessons–academically, socially, and spiritually. I hope she’ll come to appreciate even more fully the values and virtues of ambition, hard work, and achievement, and in May 2024, I expect to smile, applaud, and maybe even cry a little in celebration of her accomplishments and the recognitions she has earned. I will be proud of the rights and privileges accompanying that hard-earned diploma she will hold.
But on the inside, I’ll also be whispering a little prayer that her four years in that unique community inspire her to spend the rest of her life looking beyond blame, responding to the call, seeking the best answers for all . . . embracing responsibilities.