At the risk of sounding melodramatic and extremist, I want to suggest that our culture is currently facing a crisis of epidemic proportions regarding the extent to which personal responsibility has been exiled from our identity and character.
America is not, on the whole, a nation of responsible individuals; America is predominantly a nation of victims.
In utilizing this term I am, of course, not referring to people who have been literally victimized by crimes, but rather am referring to something of which many of us are aware to varying degrees, which is a victim-centered mode of existence or way of being that is characterized by an avoidance and denial of individual responsibility. Let me be clear in acknowledging the obvious reality of this existential mode in my own life before making observations of others’ lives or the life of our collective culture. As an existentialist I can talk big about the vital and central importance of responsibility and yet I am appalled when I honestly recognize the extent to which I “play the victim card” in my daily experience of life and interactions with others. What I find in myself and others is that we are apparent experts at personal responsibility as long as the issue remains on the level of abstract, intellectual thought and discourse; we are masters at thinking and talking about it but novices at “doing” it, at actually living it.
So, why is this such a serious problem? Surely we can all agree that within an existential framework it represents a significant problem from a theoretical perspective, given the foundational value of self-responsibility. However, a purely theoretical view of responsibility does not ultimately concern us. What does ultimately concern us is a practical view that focuses on the lived experience of responsibility within the moment-by-moment practice of real people. It is within this context that personal responsibility becomes a truly serious problem because here there is more at stake than mere words, ideas, and hyped intellectual slogans; what is actually at stake is the physical, psychological, and spiritual health of individual human beings and our collective culture.
The simple but often not understood fact is that victims hurt people. Perceiving oneself as an object of victimization typically leads to a compensatory dynamic of entitlement. Victims feel entitled, that they possess an inherent and legitimate right to get even or get back at those who have wronged them, or that their behavior toward others is justified and excused in light of what life, the universe, God, the government, society, or whatever external factor, has done to them. Apparently, there is never a shortage of external causes upon which blame and self-responsibility can be projected for the life circumstances, choices, and actions that one is unwilling to accept. There is always a convenient scapegoat at hand to rescue a person from the intolerable burden of accepting responsibility for his or her own life, or I should say, for his or her experience of life. Certainly we are not responsible for what happens to us, what life “throws” at us, the many external factors that comprise our “thrownness,” to reference Heidegger’s expression. However, although our freedom to respond is inevitably limited to some extent by situational elements beyond our control we do have, in most situations, a significant range of freedom to choose a response to all that we cannot directly control. As Sartre, May, Frankl and many other existentialist thinkers have indicated, we are free to choose, and thus responsible for, how we experience our lives.
At this point another core existential value and concern is evident, that is, freedom and its dynamic relationship to responsibility. Do we not need to acknowledge the ironic and terrible fact that in negating personal responsibility we also negate and undermine our vital capacity for freedom? Avoiding and denying responsibility removes the ground and foundation upon which we stand, namely our freedom, that which makes a meaningful and empowered existence possible. The short-term payoff is that we don’t have to be responsible for ourselves; indeed, the responsibility lies outside of us, but then the long-term cost is that we are also not free to live our own lives, for this freedom lies beyond us as well. If we cannot be held responsible for our lives then we cannot be free to live them either. As Americans we are supposed to esteem freedom as the highest value and many offer lip service to this cultural expectation; while genuine expressions of real freedom are present within our lives and culture, I think that we must critically evaluate the authenticity of our “patriotic” cries for freedom given how readily we sacrifice it before the demands of self-responsibility. We could mockingly laugh in self-satisfied indignation if we were not all implicated, but we are all implicated, which instead should make us weep.
While there are undoubtedly many possible solutions to this fundamental problem, I believe that the most effective way out of this self-created prison is an approach based on the crucial awareness that life, existence, God, or whatever ultimate source that one acknowledges, owes us nothing. We didn’t choose to exist, we have not created ourselves and our very existence and lives on this planet have been given to us; all that we receive is a potential gift and we are not entitled to demand anything from life. I am haunted and encouraged by Frankl’s assertion that we are not in the position to question Existence, but that Existence is in fact questioning us, and that we are therefore responsible for how we answer in terms of how we choose to live our lives. I have found that this awareness has the power to liberate us from the self-imposed slavery of living life as a victim. For in the end you can either choose to live your life as a victim of external forces or as one who overcomes them through interpreting them as challenging opportunities to create a responsible and free personal existence.
— Scott Kiser