Responsibility is scary. People don’t like being reminded that they are responsible for everything they do, and that these actions have consequences. While some things are obviously out of our control, the world is the way it is because of the things people do. To someone like me, who can barely find her toothbrush in the morning, this seems an alarming level of responsibility.
However, it’s not at all uncommon to hear about the World-Changing-Impact one single person can have. The entire human experience is motivated by the vaguely paranoid notion that every individual’s actions are capable of changing the world, for better or for worse. Refrains like “one person can save the world” and “every vote counts” are important to us because, while the scenarios they call to mind are unlikely, they are also not impossible. The idea of the potential importance of a single human life is attractive — it validates not only the human experience but our responsibility to humanity itself.
Existence is lonely by definition; we can only understand the world around us through our own consciousness. This is equal parts depressing and liberating. We are condemned to a freedom that offers no possibility of escape. The idea of responsibility, then, becomes a creative way to reclaim agency in the face of the inherent isolation of existence. Our responsibility, first and foremost, is to ourselves. But we also have an obligation to improve the quality of life for all of humanity, provided we are in a position to do so. While top-down societal change can occur and is important, most change happens on an individual level. This is a powerful idea for many people, but it’s also self-motivated; even if our intentions are to improve the collective good, it’s hard to avoid the somewhat-selfish desire to have an impact beyond our own, non-transferrable human experience.
I started writing this column two semesters ago because I wanted to write one essay about political correctness. Since then, I’ve come to realize that “political correctness” has everything to do with this idea of individual responsibility. Political correctness, best understood as a conscious avoidance of coded language and actions, is motivated by an awareness that words are rarely neutral and that it is our responsibility to address the inequalities inherent in the creation of our language (and reinforced by it). We are not coddled; we are taking responsibility for the consequences of our words and of our actions. As language develops along with our understanding of the history that shaped it, it becomes our responsibility to consciously update our linguistic register. This is not something that happens naturally; it requires awareness, openness and willingness to accept that what was okay in the past is not necessarily okay today (and what is okay today will not necessarily be okay in the future).
I am fascinated by the tension between individual responsibility and collective issues. Consider the individual response to climate change: Even if I woke up tomorrow and decided to recycle everything I ever come into contact with, never drive a car again and avoid fossil fuels forever, my impact as one person would have absolutely no effect on the collective problem of environmental degradation. When faced with an issue of this magnitude, it almost seems silly to think that one person’s actions can really make a difference. It is unlikely, but once again, not impossible.
People don’t recycle because they think they’ll really be able to make enough of a difference for it to have been worth the effort. There is an intensely social aspect to actions like this; if we see more and more people recycling (or taking public transportation, or composting, or switching to solar energy, etc.), we’ll be more likely to accept the validity of the belief that change can come from the bottom. We cling tightly to the idea that if enough people come together, we can make something bigger than the sum of our individual actions. We are social creatures, bound together by the restless desire to ease the tension between the isolating nature of the human condition and the collective humanity that links us all.
If I’ve learned anything during these four expensive years of college, it’s that responsibility is everything. I cannot emphasize enough how lucky we are to be here. We are responsible for ourselves, each other and our futures. Life is brief and arbitrary; the least we can do is own our actions and try to make a difference.
I can’t think of a better way to end my college newspaper career than with an entire paragraph of unsolicited advice. So, here are the highlights of What I Learned in College:
Remember people’s names. This will make more of a difference than you expect. Own your words. Be precise with your language and take note of the impact you have on people. Respect others, and do not take other people’s respect for granted. You are not owed anything. Be selective in what upsets you, but not in what makes you happy. There is unmistakeable joy in remembering you have leftover Chipotle in the fridge. Sleep. This may be the last time in a while that you can nap for three hours on a Monday afternoon. Do not confuse hard work with luck, or vice versa. Finish everything you start, especially that entire pizza you ordered at 2 a.m. Call your parents and remind them you love them. They’ve given up more than you can imagine for you to be here. Turn your phone off at night. Go to class, but be prepared to leave if something better comes up. You won’t remember the lectures you went to as well as the ones you didn’t. Find that one person you just can’t help yourself around and tell them how they make you feel. If you’re able to do this, please let me know how. Pay attention to people as you walk around. Keep a mental image of that expression of humble wonder that flashes across someone’s face as they admire the beauty of this campus when they think no one is looking. Keep your toothbrush somewhere you’ll remember. Do not worry about your future. It is a privilege to have a future to worry about. Most importantly, take responsibility. You are made up of your words and your actions.
And remember, you can change the world. It’s unlikely, but not impossible.
Emily Hardin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Free Lunch appeared alternate Mondays this semester. This is its final installment.