This week during my birthday I felt a little mental tickle – in moments between everyday life, work, receiving birthday wishes, and enjoying treats, a question was niggling at me for attention: Responsibility, what is it? How would my life be different if I looked at the question of responsibility a little more seriously?
Back up a few years – my mom, a disciple of the religious leader Sri Chinmoy, told me that they believe the soul comes forward on your birthday and reconfirms the promise made to God at birth.
As a Zen Buddhist I don’t either deny or confirm the existence of god, but set that question aside due to lack of evidence. In my view, people can believe whatever works for them and the rest of society. Now this idea that on my birthday I might get some insight into my purpose or raison d’etre has stuck with me. So when the word “responsibility” popped into my thoughts several times in the course of the day, I took note.
And in the beautiful interconnected way of things, out of the blue, my reading the next day also focused on responsibility. Personal responsibility turns out to be a fascinating question discussed at great length by theologians throughout history. Long story short some thinkers believe that we have the ability to act freely (our efforts are not mapped out in advance by whatever, whomever, the creator etc.) and we have the ability to affect the future.
You and I may actually know this intuitively – it is not news – of course we have free will, of course what I do affects the future. We make choices all the time and then live with the consequences. For instance when we had a young family, my husband and I chose to live near Sointula BC, one of the most beautiful places we had ever seen. Because we felt responsible for the new lives we were shepherding into the world we chose to live in this beauty, and to live simply. We were changed by the experience, coming closer than ever before to wholeness, finding fulfillment in our interconnectedness to the people and to the land.
Back to the present and responsibility, this time round it really hit home, perhaps because of my Buddhist training. I asked myself, what if I lived my life as though having responsibility made a difference- what would that look like?
There and then I decided to use this year to give it a try. This is my second year as a monk, the year I will turn 60, so maybe I’m ready.
What are some of the things I feel responsible for? Some seem to have a theme of negative things I’d like to change:
· Systemic racism (you know, the kind that is invisible to white people but an elephant to everyone else)
· Equality (lack of it for the poor, or marginalized)
· Lack of care for the environment
· The piles of unsorted stuff that accumulate behind closed closet doors
Could I feel responsible for positive things? Yes! This revealed a category of things that call to me and require me to be on my game, or perhaps be more awake:
· The beauty surrounding me
· Joy in having a cat, friends, relationships
· My community of zen practice
· Eating locally grown food
What does eating locally have to do with responsibility? I love to ‘eat local’ because supporting food security just makes good sense to me – I eat healthier- closer to the farm, my food money stays on the island –supporting other members of the community, and we build up our capacity as a community to withstand food supply adversity. However, I also love to eat fruit, so when the grape season ended here this past summer, I found myself eating quantities of organic grapes from California.
That was an expensive choice in more ways than one! Anything coming from California is probably 90% water from an ancient aquifer and therefore unsustainable. The cost in fuel to get here? Unsustainable. The dollars spent on food from off-island also have to be subtracted from the effort to support local food security. Unsustainable. So the ripple effect of my choices, what came before and what comes after are important considerations.
Has my definition of responsibility matured in the few days that I have been contemplating it? Yes, in formulating a working definition, along with the call to wake up, I would now have to include the idea of stepping back and looking closely at the whole picture before making even simple choices.
That’s a start. I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your stories about responsibility, and what that means in your faith and in your life.
Soshin McMurchy is a Buddhist monk with the Victoria Zen Centre, zenwest.ca, and serves as the Buddhist Chaplain with the University of Victoria Multifaith Services. She works part-time at the Greater Victoria Public Library and lives in Victoria with her partner of 35 years, also a Buddhist monk.
You can read more posts on our multifaith blog, "Spiritually Speaking", HERE