According to existentialists (forgive me, I can’t name names and cite references) freedom and responsibility go together. You can only be free to the degree to which you take responsibility. I adopted this notion in my late teens and carried it for a long way. And took a lot of responsibility.

I’ve come to the conclusion, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Being responsible for self, enables freedom. But, we none of us exist in isolation, there is the issue of responsibility to others to explore. The more responsible we undertake to be for others, the more control we might have over them. As we take more responsibility so they can carry less. If we go too far, we risk depriving others of freedom. At which point we are no longer in an honourable relationship. At the same time, when we hold responsibility to others, for others, it does impact on freedom if we are determined to behave well.

When I was blogging over at The Pagan and The Pen I was very conscious that everything I wrote would impact on everyone else. It was a shared blog space, my opinions might be taken as representing the opinion of the site. Before that, in my days as a Druid Network Trustee, I was painfully aware that anything I put out in a public space could, potentially, have an impact on a whole organisation. That was very inhibiting.

It’s very difficult to learn without making mistakes, or at least having room and permission to make mistakes. It’s hard to grow, or develop, when you have to play safe, and there is no room to get it wrong. Too much responsibility makes it very hard to take risks, experiment, or do anything radically new. One of the things I love about being a solitary blogger, is that if I do something stupid, I’m not taking anyone else down with me. I still hold an awareness of responsibility not to bring paganism into disrepute, and a responsibility not to tell people bullshit, or encourage anyone to do anything likely to harm them. But there’s a lot more wriggle room, and I like that.

It is possible to be in a responsible relationship to others, and still test the boundaries, but everyone else has to know and accept. There are places where loose cannons and chaotes can be part of the team, but it’s unusual to find one. Sometimes in a ritual circle, if you have someone calm holding the centre, the chaotic folk have space to play.

I like my freedom. I can’t imagine ever voluntarily going back into a situation where duty restricted my own need to explore and express. It took me a while to realise just how important that is to me, but now I’ve got it, I won’t sacrifice it to someone else’s cause. What I have now, is responsibility on my own terms, where I decide what duty is owed, what risks are tolerable, and what behaviours are acceptable. I draw the lines for myself, and I have not given anyone else permission to tell me I cannot do a thing for fear that it might cause a problem. I’m not overwhelmed with the desire to cause problems, I trust my own judgement. I also know I will make mistakes, but it is good knowing I do that alone, on my own terms, without dragging anyone else down with me against their will. There is no one in my life in a position to withhold permission, refuse me the scope to explore, express or create in my own terms. I like that. Now I get to ponder what kinds of relationships I can have with numbers of people, or groups of people, whilst holding that precious autonomy for myself. I think if I am entirely honest about what I am, and what I am not, and avoid fixed roles, I should be able to hold this. It will be interesting to see what happens, as I move back towards being more socially engaged again.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

3 responses to “Responsibility

  • Athelia Nihtscada

    Wonderful post! Existentialism is something I’ve been studying for awhile due to its ties to psychology and psychotherapy that I’ve been learning about in university. In the context of psychology, existentialism focuses on five “Givens”: (Check out this site for a more detailed description of all of this: It’s brilliant, IMHO)

    1. Freedom, Responsibility, and Agency – This is what your post seems to be focused on. Many people think that freedom involves escaping responsibility. Life gives us responsibilities which can hinder us or make us feel like we are not free, therefore, we go off on our own to make our own freedom.

    However, one can be existentially free, even if one is not “politically” free. Meaning: There is a consequence to everything and we must be aware of that. That’s the Responsibility part of the existentialist equation.

    The freedom part comes in when we realize that we are completely free to react to something. No one can make that choice for us. The freedom you have in any situation, is what you will learn from this and how you will respond, which is the Will and the Agency part.

    An excellent book to read on this subject is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who became a prisoner of quite a few concentration camps during WWII, including Auschwitz. He provides an excellent overview of human nature in the context of a concentration camp, but also credits his survival to the realization that he had the ultimate freedom: psychological freedom. The freedom to take what is given and make the choice of how to react to it. He found meaning in the most undesirable of circumstances, which is hard for us to imagine based on the relative comfort of our modern lives.

    2. Death, Human Limitation, and Finiteness – Death is the one destiny that all living things share. If we are born, we will eventually die. What happens between the two points of birth and death are what matters, and this is again where we can exercise our existential freedom of choice, awareness of consequence and will. Some people completely avoid enjoying the beauty of life because they feel that the true beauty lies in some afterlife where one will be judged on their austerity and perfection (or lack thereof) in life. Some people enjoy things in life a little too much and infringe on others’ enjoyment. (Criminals, etc.)

    In my mind, life is about appreciating life because we will all eventually die. It is also about finding balance in life (not dwelling too much on death and not denying it). What would you do differently if you knew for sure you would die next week? What would you regret? What is stopping you from doing that now?

    Rollo May, another psychologist, has written a number of books on various aspects of life with an existentialist focus. My favourite is: “Man’s Search for Himself” (1953), Delta 1973 (Reprint). ISBN 0-385-28617-1

    3. Isolation and Connectedness – It’s not “all about me” in existentialism. It is about finding connection with others, practicing empathy and being a part of something meaningful with others (whatever that might be is up to you – again, that Freedom!) It is also looks at how we isolate ourselves: Interpersonal – how we can isolate ourselves from others physically or even become involved in relationships that are not meaningful; Intrapersonal – not being fully present in the relationships we have; and Existential – the feeling that we can never really overcome that isolation. However, the Existential Freedom comes from acknowledging that limitation, finding meaning in it and doing what we can to make our connections/relationships more meaningful.

    4. Meaning vs. Meaninglessness – Finding Meaning, like Freedom is one of the cornerstones of existentialism. There are three types of meaning:

    False – These are the myths of power that we create, i.e.: power, money, sex. They don’t make us existentially free, nor do they give us real meaning in life. The Dalai Lama, in his book “Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for the new Millennium” (ISBN 0-349-11443-9), tells the story of his stay with a fabulously wealthy couple. They had it all, it seemed! When he peeked into their medicine cabinet, he took note of the anti-stress pills, anti-depressants and other things, which told him that all of that wealth didn’t seem to be working too well for their mental health.

    Transitory – These are the things that help us cope with any situation. They are our values, which are good to have, but not the end-all-be-all of existence. i.e.: service, faith, education, leadership, growth as a person, etc.

    Ultimate – This is the “type of meaning that aids in the transcending the existential issues of death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness.”( Some might argue that this is where a relationship with God, or the Divine (however we may see it) comes in: the spiritual self. I see it as being how do we grow, learn and make meaning out of the topics of death, isolation, freedom and meaninglessness? How we do that is up to us once again – Freedom.

    5. Emotions, Experience, and Embodiment – This involves embracing, accepting and finding meaning in our emotions… all of them. Even the ones we don’t like. The quest for Individualtion in the Jungian sense (unifying all of the aspects of the self and transcending basic existence) is a good example of this given. It’s difficult to do, but is very liberating when it is sought and achieved!

    From what I’ve learned from the philosophy of existentialism, we have a lot more control over our own existence and situations than we give ourselves credit for. We have more freedom than we give ourselves credit for and, as a result, more power than we ever felt possible. Yes, there are consequences and, yes, there is responsibility that comes with that existential power… but the freedom, meaning and higher understanding of ourselves as human beings is so worth it! (In my own opinion, of course!)

    The interesting thing about philosophy is how it is interpreted by each person. Thank you for sharing your interpretation and causing me to think (and write!) a little more than I would on a lazy Summer Sunday afternoon! :^)

  • A Bit About Existentialism « athelia143

    […] to Nimue at Druid Life for writing an article on her blog about Responsibility that inspired this comment, which has become my first real post on this […]

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