Personal responsibility: What’s the point?
Eva Analitis | Friday, April 8, 2022
As a non-Catholic, when I didn’t make a point of abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent, my Catholic-school friends weren’t too surprised as they devoutly observed a day of discipline once a week. While they filled the seats of Friday fish-fries and reminded one another to steer clear of meals with meat, they figured I simply wasn’t bound by the same guidelines when I pulled out turkey sandwiches for lunch or enjoyed grilled chicken for dinner. Little did they know, however, that as an Orthodox Christian, I am supposed to abstain from meat, fish, oil and dairy for the entirety of Lent — a much more rigorous regimen.
Occasionally, the subject would come up in conversation, and it went something like this: “The Orthodox don’t have to not eat meat on Fridays, right?” To which I would respond with mild shame but mostly indifference, “Well, actually, I’m not supposed to eat meat or dairy at all during Lent. It’s just so hard that I don’t even bother.” I used this line of reasoning to justify my Lenten laziness. The Orthodox have it unfairly difficult during Lent, I had convinced myself. What’s the point of even trying to observe such a strict fast? While Orthodox Christian fasting guidelines are undoubtedly demanding leading up to the holiest time of year — as manifested by the fact that every year during Holy Week services at least one altar boy faints from being so nutrient-deprived — I had failed to explain why that means I shouldn’t try to follow the fast at all. I had, to use one of my mother’s favorite phrases, a defeatist attitude.
Just because you feel you can’t realistically go the 40 days of Lent and then Holy Week without eating meat or dairy doesn’t mean you should shamelessly go zero. Why not join my Catholic friends in going meatless on Fridays at least? I wish this realization had occurred to my younger self.
As we find ourselves submerged in the 2022 Lenten season and I recall my illogical laxity during prior years, I can’t help but notice a similar defeatist attitude seeping into society. Growing up, we were inculcated with the concept of personal responsibility, raised and educated to be conscientious citizens — following the three r’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), keeping up with current events and anxiously waiting for our eighteenth birthdays so we could finally vote. We were eager to make a personal impact. Over the past several years, however, we have become more conscious of the systemic sources of many social ills. We now know that the real culprits of America’s stark wealth inequality are billionaires rather than your average doctor, lawyer or accountant making six figures. We know that fossil fuel companies are the most concerning contributors to climate change rather than our personal lack of an electric car. We are finally becoming aware of the real root of most of our problems — that it’s not the average citizen but rather systems and powerful groups. We’ve learned to limit our personal guilt and call out corporate greed instead for intensifying climate change, vast wealth inequality and discrimination. This is, of course, good, as it drives us to shift blame to these larger entities and agitate for change at the level that will actually have a substantial impact. As we come to realize the deep-seatedness of society’s most stark injustices, however, we must be careful not to adopt a defeatist attitude. Systemic issues can lead us to shun personal responsibility. While we certainly should focus blame on the main actors causing harm, this doesn’t mean we get a free pass as ordinary individuals.
Sometimes, we resort to a defeatist attitude not simply because we won’t be able to have a tangible impact on a major issue but because doing the right thing on an individual level might impose a burden on us. Say, for example, you bring your reusable cup to Starbucks so that your order won’t require a single-use plastic cup. However, many other customers in the store are still sipping from plastic cups or slurping with plastic straws. Will your not using a single plastic cup slow down climate change? Or lessen the amount of plastic piling up in our oceans, where there’s already an estimated 150 million metric tons and 8 million more entering annually? Obviously not. In fact, it probably would have been more convenient for you to just accept a plastic cup provided by Starbucks than to wash your reusable cup and remember to bring it with you. So you might have even gotten the short end of the stick.
Or maybe you boycott Amazon because you resent the company’s massive tax avoidance and poor working conditions. While Jeff Bezos, who’s made a mark on almost every inch of the Earth, gallivants into space, you don’t want him to enjoy even a penny of your money. That’ll show him. But newsflash, Jeff Bezos doesn’t even know who you are, and he’ll be a billionaire with or without your business. All your personal boycott really means is that you won’t be able to conveniently shop online for whatever you desire and have it delivered to your doorstep. Everyone around you will continue to see their Prime packages pile up in the mail while you engage in futile principled protest.
This brings me back to my long-standing Lenten dilemma. What’s the point? What’s the point of attempting if you can’t accomplish the whole task? What’s the point of doing the right thing if it won’t make the world noticeably better? What’s the point of working to be a just individual in an unjust society? This defeatist attitude I have used not just to justify turkey sandwiches on Fridays of Lent but to release myself from personal responsibility in all kinds of areas. Instead of despairing in the face of overwhelming obligations and large-scale issues, however, we must remember that even if we can control nothing else, we control ourselves. Maybe my forgoing of a Starbucks plastic cup for my cold brew won’t put a dent in plastic pollution, but at least it won’t make it worse. Maybe my refusal to order from Amazon won’t put a damper on the company’s dominance, but at least I’m not helping to fuel it. And maybe I can’t go 40 days without eating meat or dairy, but fasting for at least a few days of the season can still help me develop discipline.
To claim personal responsibility is, in a sense, to reclaim power in a vast universe that tries to reduce us to insignificant individuals — that tells us that no one will notice if we do good and tempts us that no one will notice if we do bad. This zoomed out perspective tries to convince us that nothing matters since we are doomed regardless, so we might as well act in our immediate, individual interests. But I urge you to zoom back in and return the value to personal choices and small-scale actions. In the face of pervasive injustice and daunting tasks, it can be difficult to know where to begin. We can start by defeating the defeatist attitude.
A former resident of Lyons Hall, Eva Analitis is a senior majoring in political science and pre-health. Even though she often can’t make up her own mind, that won’t stop her from trying to change yours. She can be reached at [email protected] or @evaanalitis on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.