In 1966 Greenleaf wrote: Responsibility is a difficult thing to talk about. It is often seen as that which others should have more of. Few of us think of ourselves as irresponsible; the admission would be too devastating. We all do pretty well at rationalizing our own acts of commission and omission that bear on responsibility.
Most definitions of responsibility imply conformity with conventional expectations, conventional morality, or being deterred by consideration of known sanctions or consequences. Such definitions imply that the rules and penalties are all set and the responsible person is one who carefully stays within bounds. I prefer not to use the word responsibility to mean conformity to expectations (although a sensible person always does some of that). Rather I think of responsibility as beginning with a concern for self, to receive that inward growth that gives serenity of spirit without which someone cannot truly say, ‘I am free.’ One moves, then, to a response to one’s environment, whatever it is, so as to make a pertinent force of one’s concern for one’s neighbor – as a member of a family, a work group, a community, a world society. The outward and inward are seen as parts of the same fabric. Responsible persons have both.
Once again Greenleaf invites us to reflect by reframing a concept, in this case the concept is ‘responsibility.’ He, as is his pattern, begins with ‘self’ – ‘Who’ I am powerfully influences ‘What’ I will choose to Do. He also reiterates his belief in ‘growth.’ This particular growth gives us a gift: ‘serenity of spirit.’ As usual, Greenleaf does not define certain words; in this case the word is ‘spirit.’ In later essays he defines ‘spirit’ as ‘entheos’ – the animating spirit that sustains us.
Responsibility entails ‘response.’ In this case, our response demonstrates a ‘concern for one’s neighbor.’ Who is our ‘neighbor’? Greenleaf is clear. Our ‘neighbor’ is a member of our family, is a member of our work group, is a member of our community (and we are members of many different communities) and is a member of ‘a world society’ (which pretty much covers all of us). Greenleaf’s definition of ‘neighbor’ is not a limited one and his definition itself challenges us to reframe a common definition that limits the number of folks we would call ‘neighbor.’ How many of us truly ‘see,’ conceptualize and respond to everyone we meet as our ‘neighbor’?
As reflective searcher and seekers we are challenged by Greenleaf to not only consider his reframe of ‘responsibility,’ we are challenged to take some time for reflection – to reflect more deeply upon what he has to offer us. Of course we have choice. We can choose not to take the time to reflect. We can choose to dismiss out of hand what Greenleaf offers us to consider. This has always been one of the beauties of Greenleaf’s writing – he seldom says, ‘This is the Way!’ He is more interested in our choosing to engage with him in a search. He offers us the stimulation for the search; it is up to us to choose whether to search or not.
As Greenleaf often reminds us, the one rooted in ‘surety’ will not choose to search; why would he or she? So, to what extent am I ‘sure’ about the meaning of ‘responsibility’? My ‘response’ will help me become aware of my willingness to choose to search with Greenleaf or to dismiss what he offers for consideration.
By the by, here is a definition that I have found to be helpful: Responsible = having a capacity for moral decisions; answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power or control.