Responsibility, power, and privilege

Photo by Christian Buehner on Unsplash

When I first started dipping my toes into the personal development world, one of the things that didn’t sit right with the social justice warrior in me was the emphasis on personal responsibility. In the capitalism-can-do-no-wrong world of traditional personal development, personal responsibility is a bootstraps ethos. No matter what misfortunes have befallen you, you are expected to focus and power through until you reach success, without any outside support (especially government support). In The Five Major Pieces To the Life Puzzle, Jim Rohn—mentor to Tony Robbins and considered by many to be the grandfather of the modern personal development industry—says that everyone experiences the same hardships in life, betraying an all too common blindspot in his field when it comes to historical injustices that have led to present-day inequality.

And yet, personal responsibility featured strongly in the philosophies of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr, and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. While it is definitely true that Black people in America can trace many of their hardships back to the actions of white people past and present, it is also true that expecting the same white society to fix the problem is a bad strategy. The Black Lives Matter movement today is yet another example of an oppressed people taking responsibility for their own liberation. This is what responsibility looks like when it is separated from the assumptions of white supremacy and plutocracy.

So in 2012 when I took the Art of Living basic course taught by community activists and educators Rosa González and Clarke Weatherspoon in the largely Black and brown Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, and heard the spiritual teaching that responsibility is the key to power, I was ready to relax my knee-jerk opposition to what I had previously believed was a right-wing talking point. Responsibility, you see, is a highly confusing term. To many people, it carries an accusatory connotation. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most sentences in which the word responsibility appears are ones in which the speaker is talking about someone else’s responsibility, often in a condescending tone.

In yogic teachings, from the yoga sutras of Patanjali to modern Indian spiritual leaders like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru, understanding that we each have the ability to respond to our own life circumstances and are therefore ultimately responsible for creating our own lives is a prerequisite for personal growth. (I’m sure that’s what Jim Rohn meant too, but when you overemphasize the responsibility of the one-down position in a power dynamic, you fail to take responsibility for your role in eradicating injustice.)

In the world of psychological healing and trauma recovery, a similar message is commonly heard: you are not responsible for what happened to you, but you are responsible for your own healing. This is not meant as punishment or blame. This is actually meant to be empowering for those of us who identify too heavily with our roles as victims. Victims wait to be saved, often by the same people who hurt them. Survivors save themselves. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” This is the sober assessment of a man who refuses to be a victim, and who takes a stand for his own liberation.

Unfortunately, in the doublespeak of modern political discourse, when oppressed people attempt to make use of the tools and programs that were won for them by their ancestors in various movements for social justice (ie, Affirmative Action, or the Voting Rights Act), the opponents of justice deride such attempts as cheats, as unfair advantages afforded to people who “should learn to take responsibility for their own lives.” Instead of taking responsibility for their own feelings of anger and superiority planted there by a white supremacist society, these “personal responsibility” ambassadors pass the buck onto a group of people trying desperately to take advantage of the few gains they have made in a centuries-long struggle for equality even as they fight for their most basic right to live.

Despite the fact that I’ve talked in this post mostly about the actions of African Americans throughout history, I’m hoping that it will be read by a large number of white people. But even if you are not white, the mere fact that you are reading this article on the internet is evidence that you have access to some amount of privilege that not all humans enjoy. So let me speak right now to that part of all of us that comes from a place of privilege over other human beings. If Sadhguru is right that our ability to respond is infinite and depends only on our willingness to acknowledge it; and if we are committed to love, which along with responsibility, respect, and knowledge, contains the core element of care; then how do we feel about how we have been responding to a world that we know is rife with injustice?

If answering this question gives you a headache or causes you to lose hope, I get it. I’ve been there. But don’t ignore that pain. It’s there for a reason, and in week three of Befriend the Change, my upcoming 6-week course on the connection between personal growth work and social change, we will learn how to work with our pain in a way that allows us to stay connected to our values. Join us and let’s create the world that we all deserve.

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Are you distressed by all the division and conflict that exists between people today? Do you find yourself avoiding “touchy subjects” like COVID, systemic racism, and climate change with certain family members or friends? Does all this leave you feeling hopeless for humanity’s future? On May 1, 1992, Rodney King asked, “Can we all get along?” Today, 29 years later, it seems like the answer is no. But what if the solution to humanity’s problems were actually simpler than you thought? On May 6, 2021, join us for a six-week online course on how personal growth and healthy relationship skills can save the world. Befriend the Change. Click here for more info.

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Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds). To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy@gmail.com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

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