The Problem with Personal Responsibility


As a child, I was reared in a home that strongly advocated for personal responsibility. It’s an important part of being a successful, positive member of society. Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole in the concept people aren’t addressing, and it’s one that a simple train ride could uncover.

A Train Ride on a Hot Day
Just yesterday I was in Atlanta riding on the Marta – an elevated train that provides transportation to the city. It was a pretty busy weekend, and after about 20 miles of walking (not an exaggeration – ask my watch 😉 ) I was ready to just relax on a plane ride home.

To get there, I had to do a small bit of walking in the warm Atlanta sun with all my luggage in tow so I could catch the Marta. I made it to the station, ready for a break. As I boarded the train, I saw the full seats and realized I would be standing. Stop after stop the doors opened and more people piled in, but few got out.

Finally, about fives stops from the airport a large number of people left, and I was finally able to grab a seat near the back of the train car. I dropped my shoulders as my backpack of gear and two other shoulder bags fell into the seat beside me. I took a deep breath and relaxed, and I quietly set my gaze toward the front of the bus. Then I heard the door behind me open as someone moved from the previous car to this one.

A Bold Plea
As the door slammed shut, a loud voice called out into the car. “Does anyone have any spare change? I just want to have some bread and water. I’m hungry. I just want to eat.”

As the plea continued, a man walked into my field of view. He was a slightly older gentleman wearing blue shorts and a blue t-shirt, and he seemed clean and in good health. Had it not been for his request, I would have had no expectation he would be asking for money.

Immediately upon hearing his plea, a nicely dressed young woman, several seats in front of me reached into her designer purse to pull out some cash as her husband watched. The man walked up to her and greeted her with thanks and an add unsolicited vow. “I won’t use this for drugs or alcohol. I promise. I promise.” His repetition was meant to show his sincerity, although the mere mention of it seemed counter productive, like a taxpayer offering unsolicited assurance to his auditor that he would never cheat on his taxes.

He then proceeded to move through the bus, seat to seat, looking each person in the eye who would look at him. He would ask them directly, like a used car salesman closing a sale. There was no escape: you had to donate to his fund or refuse him directly.

A Common Theme
Having been a frequent traveler to Atlanta, I found it intriguing that the man went to certain people. As we were headed to the airport, I have to wonder if his choice of train was deliberate. I wonder if he was specifically targeting people who weren’t local.

Why? Because I’ve been to this area of Atlanta several times. Although it’s infrequent, I can pretty much count on being asked for money at least once on each trip. The locals, of course, know this. They seem to tune it out. It’s like the sound of traffic to them: just part of the background.

I find myself wondering about this man. I wonder if this is just how he makes money. His approach has the telltale signs like the others I’ve encountered: the reassurance that it’s only for food, the proclamation of dire need, the hard sell, and the specific targeting. I have to wonder if the reason he really doesn’t check with locals is because he knows they know.

And so I wonder, regardless if this man is legitimately struggling or not, what about the phonies? What about the people who are just out there begging every day, instead of being responsible for their own person? What about the people that are coasting and taking it easy because they don’t want to do the hard work?

Personal Responsibility
Which leads us to personal responsibility. We often look at personal responsibility as that measure against which we apply the actions of people. “He’s begging. Why isn’t he looking for a job?” “She has no friends. Why doesn’t she see how angry she is and change?” “He’s lonely. Why doesn’t he get out of the house and go meet people?”

Why don’t these people accept some responsibility for their situation? We ask this question wondering why people are caught in their own struggle. And here’s where the problem lies: that is only half of the personal responsibility in this equation.

These people don’t exist in a vacuum. They are not the only people that must show personal responsibility. Personal responsibility has two sides. If we see someone who is angry and doesn’t communicate well, there is probably a reason. It’s our responsibility to jump in and show them compassion and gently lead them toward a better life.

If we see someone struggling to get out of the house, there’s probably a reason. It’s our responsibility to help them through tough times just by being there and going to them instead of making them come to us. We live in a community, not a vacuum. It’s our responsibility to meet people halfway.

The Solution with Personal Responsibility
We tend to make personal responsibility one sided: it’s their personal responsibility. We often ignore our own responsibility as members of the same community – the same humanity.

Instead, we need to realize any lack of responsibility they have, does not negate our own responsibility. We need to hold ourselves up to a standard whether or not someone else does.

The only real problem with personal responsibility is that we often forget about our responsibility to the other person. The solution is simply to realize that and be responsible enough to make a change.

David Bishop

David is CEO of Cedowin Productions, dedicated to helping you live your best life through positive habits. He has inspired tens of thousands to improve habits and communication through books, articles, workshops, and apps. He is the creator of AweVenture, helping families enjoy fantastic, active experiences and Zombie Goals, literally making building healthy habits a game. He’s authored several books including How to Create Amazing Presentations, 7 Steps to Better Relationships, and The Man in the Pit, which helps people who have loved ones struggling with depression.

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