Yarrow (angelweed) wrote,


yezida writes: "...take full responsibility for your emotions (these are never the fault or responsibility of anyone else, no matter who or what we are reacting to)..." (Emphasis in original)

Jerry Weinberg is someone else I respect who says things like this; it's a fairly common viewpoint. Furthermore, acting as if it were true has often been useful for me: I have more influence on how I respond to my feelings than I do over someone else's actions, and the way I perceive those actions may have much more to do with my feelings than the actions themselves; so it's useful to focus on myself first, before trying to influence others. When I do want to influence others, saying "I feel angry" is more likely to be heard than "You're making me angry."  And a request to perform or avoid a specific action ("don't step on my toes"; "please rub my back") is much easier to comply with than "don't make me angry" or "make me happy."

On the other hand, the only way I can make it out to be true that we none of us are responsible for another's emotions is to imagine that we none of us can affect each other's emotions.  And that is false. The emotions torture gives rise to in its survivors, for instance, are clearly the fault and responsibility of the torturers. Consider the following litany of the long-term psychological effects of torture: "anxiety, depression, irritability, paranoia, guilt, suspiciousness, sexual dysfunction, loss of concentration, confusion, insomnia, nightmares, impaired memory, and memory loss." If the torturer is responsible for the broken bones, the damaged heart, the burns and scars, then the torturer is also responsible for the anxiety, depression, and guilt.

One interesting study tells us that people who have suffered torture are in worse physical shape but better psychological shape than similar people affected by other traumas. My own suspicion is that the tortured were people who had already taken yezida's advice, who had taken responsibility for their lives and their actions: people who were dangerous.

So why not accept the statement and never mind these quibbles about extreme situations? Two reasons, one about how we treat other individuals and one about how we understand societies.

On the individual level, it's healthy for me to take primary responsibility for my emotions; it's not healthy for me to abjure responsibility for the effect my actions have on others' emotions. If my emotions were "never the fault or responsibility of anyone else" then no one else's emotions would ever be a responsibility of mine: I'd no have obligation to choose my words carefully, to refrain from bullying or whining, or to listen closely and respectfully to people I disagree with. On the level of emotions there would be no reason for, and there could be no result from, compassionate action. Now yezida and Jerry Weinberg don't in fact behave as if compassionate action were futile -- on the contrary.  So that's one way of posing the question -- how can one frame the call to emotional responsibility in such a way that someone following it would emulate yezida and Jerry's compassion as well as their self-responsibility?

To say that I am responsible for my words, bitter or sweet, is not to say that my listeners have no responsibility for how they react to those words.  To say that I am responsible for the love and support I give Marsha is not to detract from her courage and grit.  Marsha could have given up many times, and she did not. For twenty years my contribution to that was mostly getting out of her way.  In 2005, on the other hand, I think it very likely that she would have died without my support. Some of that support was physical: food she liked to eat, for instance, and a CamelBak water bag so she could drink more easily.  More of it came as tech support: a TV she could watch, cable channels she wanted to watch, assistive technologies so she could use the computer.  And I was there to love her, and talk to her, and hold her.

Both the tech support and the love had effects primarily on Marsha's emotions.

Not many of the folks in the nursing home have the emotional support that Marsha does.  And that is because of the decisions that our society makes:  Physical care is important.  Emotional care is not.

Which brings us to understanding society.  We are social animals; we affect each other emotionally.  Without understanding how we affect each other's emotions as individuals and as societies, we can't understand why we die for each other, kill each other, love or hate or cheat or help each other.  And we can't understand how we affect each other if we don't admit that we do affect each other.

There is a danger in that admission, particularly for personal relationships between individuals.  Most of the time, my emotions are much more affected by me (and my emotional history) than by any one individual I interact with.  So a good rule of thumb is that I am, if not solely responsible for my emotions, still primarily responsible.  I am the one in this body, feeling these feelings.  If I come home to find that someone has broken into my house and left a sick baby in my living room, I'm responsible for that baby -- maybe only until I call Social Services, but I'm responsible, because I'm the one on the scene.  The person who left the baby there is more responsible, probably, but that's almost irrelevant.  If I spend so much time cursing them that I don't take care of the baby, I'm not meeting my own responsibility.

None of that means I'm free to break into my neighbor's house and leave the baby there.

"Until you are willing to take responsibility for your life, you will never be free," says yezida. And she's right.  And "none of us are free until all of us are free"  (which I've seen attributed to both Martin Luther King and Mikhail Bakunin).  They're right too.

I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's refuge.  If I fail at those tasks as often as I succeed, still they are my tasks, my responsibilities: "...it is not incumbent upon us to complete the work; neither are we free to desist from it entirely" (Pirke Avot)
Tags: marsha, politics, the sacred

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