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January 1996

The Face of Responsibility

by Brian Lavendel

One doesnít need to look far to find evidence of people failing to take responsibility for their actions. Check out the front page of any daily city paper. Turn on the tube. Corporations carry out practices destructive to the environment and exploit workers at home and abroad. Politicians accept financial donations from well-financed interest groups while cutting funds for health and education. Real estate developers pave cornfields to make way for shopping malls. Agribusiness turns to genetic engineering and growth hormones for increased productivity and cost savings. Adults and children terrorize and kill each other in our streets. Hollywood and the television industry add to the violence ó selling us beer, soft drinks, and 4-wheel drive vehicles during commercial breaks between murders.

Directors of corporations, government representatives, and individuals often fail to acknowledge or accept personal responsibility for their actions. What makes this possible? The answer is not simple, but I think it likely that it is related to a lack of community, to a world in which we are all anonymous.

Picture, for a moment, how different things might be if we lived in a small town some decades past. In that town, anyoneís business was everyoneís business. You knew what your neighbors were up to and they knew the same about you. Now I wonít deny that having all your neighbors know everything youíre up to could be bothersome at times, but at least you knew your neighbors. You may have laughed at them, helped them with chores, kept an eye on their kids, or argued with them ó but at least you knew them! It certainly encouraged people to act in a respectable, indeed, responsible, way.

Itís human nature to want to look decent in the eyes of our neighbors, friends, and family, I suppose. And thatís why I am careful to behave decently toward those people. I feel fortunate to have neighbors who look after my dog, and who enjoy getting samples of my home-baked cookies or muffins. They feel fortunate, too, I think. But in my daily life, I also deal with people who donít fall into those categories. Today, our lives are busy and complicated. We interact with many, many people in our work, our travel, our recreation, throughout our daily lives. But such interaction can be fleeting. Many times, we donít even know those whom we interact with. I donít know the city worker who picks up my garbage, or the baker who woke at four in the morning to bake my breakfast bagel, or my neighbor two houses down the street. Itís my loss ó and theirs. Donít get me wrong; itís not that I try to be rude or heartless or exploitative of those folks. Itís just that my vested interest is a factor when I deal with people who I know and care about, and who know and care about me.

If you doubt my line of reasoning, consider a scenario. Iím trying to park my car in a crowded parking lot. Traffic has been heavy, Iím running late, and my patience is used up. A parking space opens as my vehicle and another approach. I jump at the opportunity and accelerate quickly into the space, cutting off the other vehicle. Okay. Fine. Now put yourself in my place, and consider how you might feel if, as you pulled your car into the vacant spot, you exchanged looks with the other driver only to see the face of a friend or neighbor.

You think to yourself, "If I had known it was her, I wouldnít have been in such a rush. Why was I so rude?" Or perhaps you might consider apologizing to her as you got out of the car. My point is this: We feel differently about our actions when they affect those who are important in our lives. How would you have felt about the parking incident if it included a complete stranger? What if it were someone you would likely never see again? How would you feel if later that day you went to your childís school only to find out that the person you cut off in the parking lot was your sonís teacher?

Imagine how different our actions might be if we honestly and sincerely took responsibility for all of our actions ó whether in plain sight of our community of family and friends, or not! Behaving responsibly can be empowering because making responsible choices demands that we be active and engaged with the world around us.

We can begin by taking a closer look at our own lives. By taking responsibility for our own actions, by actively developing a sense of community, we can begin to influence others to be more responsible in their lives. Itís catchy! Many people have come to realize that they have more control over their lives, and more say in their community than theyíd realized. In a capitalist society, one of our greatest tools is our money; we can choose where we spend it. For example, instead of purchasing goods and services from corporations that pay their employees a below-poverty wage, you might decide to pay a higher price to support a business where the employees have health insurance.

I can choose to do my shopping at the megastore chain that is forcing dozens of small, locally-owned businesses into bankruptcy, or I can shop on Main Street. When you go to the movies or turn on the television, you can choose to boycott films that send irresponsible messages about violence or the treatment of women, thereby refusing to support those industries at the box office or through advertising revenues. I can venture into a small, local restaurant and order an item that may be new to me and that may take more than 45 seconds to prepare, or I can pop into the fast-food chain and get a mass-produced burger and fries for half the price.

There are other choices we can make, as well. Do you vote for politicians who promote legislation you feel is responsible? Do you communicate with those politicians you support? If you are a parent, there are many choices you can make about the time you share with your child, or the amount of time she spends in front of the tube. Could you choose to spend some time at your childís school? Why not drop a note or make a friendly phone call to your childís teacher? While youíre at it, say hello to your neighbor. Heck, bakeĎem a cake!

Once you start this process, the possibilities are immense! You can begin to make choices of responsibility and of integrity in every part of your life. What if you considered everyone around you to be a member of your small-town community, whether they be family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow workers? But donít stop there; include the people who care for your children, cook at your local restaurant, deliver your mail, and interact with you in other ways! Imagine earning the respect not just of those very close to you, but of the community at large.

If we expand our understanding of community to include not just our immediate surroundings, but the whole world ó and thereby take responsibility for it ó we will feel that "vested interest" in our global environment. Suddenly, every action we take has the potential to influence members of our community or the environment in which we live. Sure, itís a big responsibility. But itís preferable, I think, to a world in which we choose to forego responsibility, a world in which we choose apathy by default.

We canít live in a small town of the past, but we can choose to be responsible and proud members of our community, be it a farm community, a factory town, a midwestern metropolis, or the global village. When I was younger, I joked about the television character named Mr. Rogers. Now I see the wisdom ó and the great potential ó in his words. So, let me ask you, at once joking and not: "Wonít you be my neighbor?"

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