Who are you? This question might look like a way someone could start a conversation but think about a time in your life when someone has actually said “Hi. Who are you?”. It’s a surprisingly aggressive and direct question. The question seems to slice through layers of social niceties and stab at the heart of the situation. Typically, our immediate response is to shield ourselves with justification or explanation. Providing your name isn’t enough of an answer: that doesn’t tell the person who you are. How we normally answer is by explaining who we are in relation to the particular situation. At a wedding, we know the bride or groom. At a party, we are a friend of someone there. At work, we explain our position in the company hierarchy.
Fundamentally, those explanations are not answers to the question. We are not who we know. We are not what we do. Take my common answers as examples. I am a husband, a father, a manager, a middle-aged, white, heterosexual, cisgender man. However, those answers don’t actually say who I am. Let’s reduce those answers to the information at their center. In the case of being a husband that tells the world who I know. Being a father or a manager says what I do. And as for being a middle-aged, white, heterosexual, cisgender man that just tells the world which category to put me in. It’s not who I am.
When we reduce our answer to the information at its center, we should be left with a word that actually describes who we are. My most reduced answer, my word is “responsible”.
How am I responsible
Everyone who has lived, worked and spent time with me knows that I am responsible. I always do what I promise to do. As a husband, I can be relied upon to be supportive, protective and a provider. As a father, I am responsible for the physical and mental well-being of three children. As for being a manager, responsibility is part of the job description. Managers are not appointed because of their brilliance at tasks. They are appointed for their dependency. The coldest view of a management position is that a manager is responsible for supervising the work of those hierarchically below them and also held responsible by those hierarchically above them when there is a problem. Being responsible is the reason that in every company I joined, if I didn’t start as a manager, I was quickly made a manager. I can be relied upon to deliver the expected results and more importantly, I am good at reacting to unexpected situations and still delivering.
However, that form of being responsible is actually a description of what I do not who I am. I support, protect and provide. I manage, supervise, react and deliver. It isn’t who I am.
How I was responsible
Another important part of what made me who I am is connected to a different form of responsibility. I was abused as a child by a member of my family
. This is not the essay for the long explanation required by that short sentence. The key element here is that people who are abused view themselves as being responsible.
Of course, in the eyes of the law or society’s morals, you are not responsible, but your view of yourself doesn’t follow laws or morals. As a child, you see yourself as being responsible.
It was being responsible that made me believe I was wrong. It was being responsible that made me feel hatred towards myself. As an adult, I am dealing with the repercussions of those beliefs and those feelings.
They are still part of who I am. I react defensively to people getting physically close to me. I react with disgust at what I see in the mirror. There is always a low, background noise of anger and resentment. I am learning to filter out that noise and beginning to feel differently about myself but being responsible back then led me to being who I am now.
There are always positive and negative aspects to responsibility. Being responsible is the same as being reliable. To be a responsible person means people can rely on you to do what is right. Being responsible is also the same as being accountable. To be a responsible person means that when something goes wrong, you can be held to account. You can be blamed. You can allow everyone else to walk away comfortably knowing that they do not need to deal with righting the wrong. There is someone responsible for that.
That is another description of who I am. However, it isn’t actually who I am. If anything, it is who I was or what I did. In fact, what I am learning and what I am beginning to feel is that it isn’t who I was. I wasn’t responsible. It isn’t what I did. It is what someone else did to me. Being responsible is how I reacted to
How I will be responsible
It is true that I have become who I am now because of my reaction to what someone did to me. It is also true that I often became a manager because I can react quickly. However, reacting is not the same as responding. As part of me exploring how being responsible is at the root of who I am, I am also exploring the root of the word “responsible”. It might seem obvious that it comes from the Latin word “respondere”, which means “to respond”. It may be less obvious that there is an important difference between a response and a reaction. Reacting is automatic. It is quick and instinctive. It bypasses thought. Responding is slower. It involves considering the situation and using reason, empathy, and compassion to act appropriately and helpfully.
It is my responsibility to distinguish between those thoughts which are reactions driven by my old feelings and the thoughts that are actually in response to the situation I am in. I am responsible for knowing when I am reacting and for slowing myself down long enough so I can respond. I know how I reacted to my past and how reacting has been part of who I am. I know I will be a better husband, father, and manager if I learn to respond with empathy and compassion. I can also confidently know that I will do the work required for me to learn all of this. After all, I am responsible.
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