What Does “Responsibility” Mean To You?

Imagine that you have a female friend. For the sake of this hypothetical, lets say that this friend’s name is “Bihanna.” Bihanna’s been your homegirl since you were kids, and although she has a tendency to act out and show her ass in public, you know that deep down she’s a sweet girl with a big heart. Some time last year, Bihanna was beaten up pretty badly by her then boyfriend, “Piss Clown,” while they were on their way to Waffle House. Now, that they actually fought didn’t really surprise you. Both Bihanna and Piss Clown have volatile personalities, and mixing them together is like Black and bleach or bathtub water and live toasters. But, you were surprised by how thoroughly he kicked her ass, and the more details you learn about the story, the more you realize she could have very easily died that night.

Piss Clown was Bihanna’s first love, though, so although the obvious choice was to leave Piss Clown alone forever, Bihanna just couldn’t stay away from him.

As her friend, you can see how this relationship may likely end up, and you’re worried about her. But although you advise her to make better, wiser decisions—but only when she asks—it’s her life, and ultimately she’s going to do what she wants to do.

After several months of going back and forth, Bihanna finally gets back with Piss Clown. You know it’s an awful decision—a decision that turns your stomach when you even think about it—but, again, she’s her own woman, and aside from offering an opinion—an unsolicited opinion this time—there’s nothing you can do.

So, they get back together, and things seem to be going well. He’s turned over a new leaf, and she’s as happy as she’s ever been.

Then, a few weeks later, you get an early morning phone call. It’s Bihanna’s mom. She’s distraught, so distraught that you already know what she’s going to tell you before she even tells you.

Bihanna was killed the night before. Piss Clown killed her during an argument, before pulling the trigger on himself.

As her friend, you’re obviously going to experience a gamut of emotions—sadness, anger, despair, etc. But, one feeling will supersede them all. A feeling so intense that it might paralyze you today, and stay with you for the next few decades.

Guilt.

No, you didn’t kill your friend. And yes, you did warn her of what was likely to happen. But, you are going to feel responsible, like you could have and should have done more to prevent this. And, the guilt stays with you because you know it’s true. There are actually things you could have done, and you spend countless hours thinking about those things. Rewinding and replaying scenes in your head until you’ve exhausted every option and thought of every single way you could have saved your friend’s life.

Now, although this was (obviously) a hypothetical, I’m certain many of you reading this have had similar things happen to you—a situation or scenario where you assigned yourself a responsibility for an unfortunate action after the action occurred despite having nothing to do with the actual action.

I’ve done it before myself, and the same mental gymnastics occur each time:

1. See a person close to you doing something you know will end badly.
2. Give a half-assed effort to stop them because, ultimately, you can’t tell an adult what to do. You may care about them, but you’re not responsible for them.
3. Witness the thing ending badly.
4. Feel retroactively responsible for not preventing it.

What’s most fascinating about this way of thinking is how it exposes our schizophrenic relationship with the concept of responsibility. We know that we’re not supposed to be responsible for certain things while also possessing the knowledge that we’ll definitely experience some serious PTRD (Post-Traumatic Responsibility Disorder) if what we think will happen actually happens. Basically, we have separate logical, intellectual, and emotional definitions of responsibility, and they tend contradict each other.

This schizophrenia doesn’t just occur when dealing with situations dear to us, either. There are situations where we may be legally responsible for a person we justifiably feel no logical, intellectual, or emotional responsibility for—i.e.: a bartender in trouble for serving a patron who was already drunk—and other situations where we allow a politically influenced definition of responsibility to override what we intellectually know to be true. (This occurred in the comments here yesterday, as a couple people argued that a woman who chooses to sleep with—and have unprotected sex with—a man who already has 10, or 15, or 30 children isn’t just as responsible as he is for the mess he’s creating in the community.)

Maybe responsibility is just an elaborate Rorschach test where our arbitrary definitions of and feelings about it say more about us than anything else. But, while this may be true, it’s still not right, and—if she could—Bihanna might agree.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)