Thursday, 26 February 2015

Responsibility and guilt

The concept of 'having responsibilities' was always rammed down my throat when young, and there was no let-up as I got older. The responsibilities were never specified, but it was perfectly clear what they covered:

# Being a credit to one's parents - and indeed listening to them and abiding by their wishes, on the basis that they were older and wiser and had more experience of life. Ultimately to look after them in their old age.
# Behaving well towards other members of society, and respecting all of society's time-honoured institutions.
# Not to be a burden on society, which meant studying hard to get qualifications and, with those, a good job so that one would be at least self-supporting.
# To strive for promotion at work, and achieve senior status with a salary and pension rights to match.
# To be a good citizen, by being alert, well-informed, kind, generous, honest, public-spirited, solvent, law-abiding and conforming. Outlandish dress and hippy attitudes were a betrayal of this.
# To actively seek a partner, and make that person very happy - at least as happy as one's own parents had been.
# To laugh at adversity, and make the most of any rare opportunity.
# If possible, to create a wonderful family, and bring them up to be persons any parent (or grandparent) would be proud of.
# To keep away from people who would drag you down. And generally reject ideas and passing fads that weren't soundly-based. Self-discipline and discernment, then.
# To face the darker things in life, such as serious illness, with bravery and fortitude. To never complain without just cause - and yet never give up where a good principle were at stake.

It was difficult to argue with a comprehensive list like that. My parents would speak as if they were living examples of people who recognised these responsibilities and faced up to them. For most of my life, I expressed no dissent. I wouldn't have dared.

Thus I endured school and got my three good A-levels, one of them with distinction, and was absorbed into the best-paying government department, then plodded my way through thirty-five conscientious years, and finally took the pension offered at the end of it all. I never vandalised a park bench, never stole, never took drugs, never smoked, never entered a betting shop, never went to a rock festival, and never ended up on the dole, living in a crummy bedsit with a baby on my hands. I paid heed to my responsibilities. My parents were pleased.

But was my life one worth living? Where were the unsafe experiences? What did I know about making really bad mistakes? About risk? What did I know about how it felt to be at the bottom of the pit, to be lost, to want an end?

I've never been depressed. I've never felt suicidal. I've also never known ecstasy. Responsible people can't feel extremes, because they stay away from anything that will risk emotional overload. Thanks, Mum and Dad.

And yet, I should say thanks, and without any irony, because my 'safe' and 'responsible' life has preserved me intact. Where are the scars? I can offer only bags under the eyes.

Where is the street-wisdom and the cynicism? I am still naïve and innocent in many ways. My outlook is too sunny, too simple, too optimistic, and I know it. That's remarkable because all of this has happened to me:

# A secret, solitary childhood with adverse consequences for successful socialisation.
# Occasional bad experiences at work - personality clashes, members of the public being horrible.
# A badly-considered marriage that ended in divorce.
# The violent death of my brother, my only sibling.
# The death of both parents, almost together.
# The loss of a lifetime's capital - £200,000 - which was to be my financial security in old age.
# The loss of the love of my life.

But I can't help it. The optimism persists. I did not give up, I did not crumple. I just picked myself up, dusted myself off, and started all over again. Just as zillions of other people have had to. It's the responsible thing to do.

I can however change my view on what is important now. On what should be my responsibilities in the rest of my life. Having been through a period of profound change, I feel completely free to select what I will consider a responsibility. Let's revisit that first list, at the beginning of the post. Which of those responsibilities are now still relevant, and still worth acknowledging?

# Behaving well towards other members of society. Not just to be a good neighbour.
# Not to be a burden on society. Vital to be self-supporting.
# To be a good citizen, by being alert, well-informed, kind, generous, honest, public-spirited, solvent, and law-abiding.
# To laugh at adversity, and to create opportunities.
# To cultivate self-discipline and discernment.
# To face the darker things in life, such as serious illness, with bravery and fortitude. To never complain without just cause - and yet never give up where a good principle is at stake.

Ha! The list has shortened! And there are nuanced changes here and there. Such as 'creating opportunities' - not merely taking advantage of them if they arise. So I now believe I should be deliberately pro-active. 

I also now have some fresh responsibilities:

# To do nothing that will bring the recognition and social position of trans people into disrepute or disrespect. I must be a very good 'trans ambassador'.
# To respect and champion all groups of people who are being unfairly or unjustly put down by a dominant group. A responsibility then to encourage equality and co-operation, everywhere, with no special exceptions.
# To be aware of what is damaging the planet, and do nothing to compromise its ongoing good health. It may be the only lifeboat we have. Certainly not to give support to governments and organisations intending to over-exploit earth's resources, and drive us all to extinction. I am suspicious of endless 'growth' in world economies. I think it better to limit population, and give everyone a larger and tastier slice of the cake that way.

It's sad to think that Mum and Dad would have dismissed my 'fresh responsibilities' as airy-fairy stuff. And they would have questioned my omission of duties like 'looking after grand-children'. (But then I haven't got any)

Ultimately, where responsibilities are concerned, the chief requirement is to acknowledge that at least some things must be addressed, that no complete escape is possible, and that a distinction must be made between the really important things and the much less important.

I often feel that people drift into doing things - it might be a family role, or regularly looking after a neighbour's pet - because they feel they 'ought to', and not as a positive decision that they took upon themselves to make, and had a responsibility to make. Putting this another way, it may be a bad thing to accept responsibility when the personal time and effort could be better used on something else.

Is it, for example, a better use of time to serve in a charity shop - or write a blog post? The knee-jerk reaction might be 'charity shop service' every time. But why? Shop assistants may not always be easy to get, but they are interchangeable. What extra or unique thing do they bring to a shop, or to the charitable process? And yet an inspiring or comforting post might make a big difference for some reader in doubt, or be at least be 'useful' and 'enlightening' in a way that just taking cash for goods can't be. This is even truer for writing proper books and influential articles that will get a wide circulation.

So I don't feel that I'm evading a social responsibility by not popping into Age UK or British Heart Foundation and covering a Thursday-morning slot. I'd consider charity better-served if I went to such a shop and actually bought something, as a customer. And in fact that is the main way I give money to charity. But buying goods is not a responsibility, nor even a moral imperative, and I think nobody should feel guilty if they never spend money in a charity shop.

It's an interesting thing, that link between responsibility and guilt. So often, where someone (a manipulator) wants something to happen, and dresses it up as a 'responsibility', guilt is then invoked to ensure that it does happen in the way they want. Guilt is the lever. Nobody enjoys feeling guilty. It's easiest to comply. Not so easy, of course, where there are two or more genuine responsibilities, and they compete. I do not envy anyone who has a job, children, and elderly parents on their hands at the same time - not an uncommon situation. What if they can't all be handled simultaneously? Which gets priority? How much guilt for neglect can be borne?

My parents were subtle in their use of guilt. Nothing was said. And yet I knew that I would be made to feel guilty if I walked away from some 'responsibility'. Even if the reason were understandable.

It might be as small as not sticking out the wet weather on a family tenting holiday in Cornwall. In 1971, after a few days of relentlessly bad weather and nothing to do, I announced that I'd had enough, and proposed to take the train home to Southampton. I was nearly nineteen, but I'd never rebelled like that before. I wasn't unpleasant about it. I'd not long left school, I had started work, had some money, and I knew where to buy milk and how to cook up bacon and baked beans. I could get by. Well, my parents made a bit of a scene. Then, when they saw I meant it, they melted and became concerned for my welfare at home, to the point of fussiness. One type of control substituted for another, of course. They drove me to Bodmin Road station (now Bodmin Parkway) and an adventure began for me. Guilt for desertion slipped away. I was travelling alone for almost the first time in my life! It was an eventful journey indeed. Between Exeter and Salisbury, some boys - who had escaped from a young offenders' detention facility - boarded the train and played hide and seek with police and train staff, moving progressively towards the front of the train. At one point, they sat close to my seat, whispering to themselves. Were they going to take a hostage? Gulp. But no, they moved on, and eventually must have been cornered and arrested. We saw them being led off the platform at Tisbury, I think it was.

My survival at home over the next few days was nothing so exciting! The feeling that I'd let Mum and Dad down - embarrassed them, even - returned. But they didn't harp on about it once back. I rather thought that making my own mind up and acting on it, showing spirit in fact, had impressed Mum and Dad, making this something of a high point in my standing with them. I'd been plucky. I'd also been well-organised with train timetables, unafraid to fend for myself, and I'd clearly mastered some cooking skills. And I'd eked out my money sensibly, with some still to spare after several days of unaccustomed food expenditure.

This was a turning-point, but it wasn't the end of a life built around 'responsibilities', some real, some manufactured for me, and all designed to keep me on a tight lead. I couldn't bear to submit to any of that now. Equally, I couldn't bring myself to impose such a regime on somebody else. The family has gone: I'm the sole survivor. I look outwards now, at my place in the wider world, and how best to conduct myself in it. And not to be gulled into accepting 'duties' and 'responsibilities' so that some political party, or pressure group, or business interest, can get their claws into me and bleed me to death.

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