“In dreams begin responsibilities” was an epigraph for Irish poet W.B. Yeats’s collection of poems, “Responsibilities,” and was later the title of Delmore Schwartz’s most famous short story.
Those same words might also serve as the central theme of Jordan Peterson’s two best-selling books, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” and “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life.”
Both of Peterson’s books, self-help guides that blend philosophy, literature, and personal anecdotes, have won him an enormous readership. Before falling ill and almost dying from his use of prescribed pharmaceutical drugs, Peterson became an enormously popular speaker, filling lecture halls and auditoriums in the United States and around the world. His YouTube videos attracted millions of followers.
So what, we might ask, was behind this Peterson phenomenon? What was the draw? What attracted so many fans, particularly young males, to this man and his ideas?
In a word, responsibility.
In the foreword to “12 Rules,” Dr. Norman Doidge nails it when he writes, “So why not call this a book of ‘guidelines,’ a far more relaxed, user-friendly, and less rigid sounding term than ‘rules?’
“Because these really are rules. And the foremost rule is that you must take responsibility for your own life. Period.”
Old Days, Old Ways
Following the defeat of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee rode into the field to greet his retreating Confederates, telling them, “This is all my fault.”
Though that statement isn’t necessarily true—many have criticized the failures of Gen. Longstreet, Lee’s subordinate, on this day of battle—Lee nonetheless accepted responsibility for the failure of this attack. To take on and bear that sort of burden is the mark of a great leader.
Half a century ago, maybe a little longer, the vast majority of Americans still practiced personal responsibility. They held themselves accountable for the care of their family and for their performance in the workplace. Most of them had their children doing chores around the home, encouraged the older ones to find work during the summer, and made them responsible for their performance in school. When adults failed in some task or duty, the good ones shouldered the blame for that failure.
New Days, New Ways
Since then, this concept of personal responsibility seems diminished. We see this transformation daily in our headlines and in some cases, in the people around us. We have created a victim culture, in which, for example, the man who flunks out of school or who can’t hold down a job blames not himself for these failures, but instead points a finger at others: ignorant teachers, for example, or demanding supervisors. Sometimes he may also fault his upbringing, his lack of resources, or even his ethnicity.
Several recent developments have helped bring about this elevation of victimhood. Primary among these is our ongoing and increasingly bizarre focus on race. The “critical race theory” currently dominating our corporations, universities, schools, and government encourages women and minorities to think of themselves as victims of an oppressive system. If we pause to consider what the CRT crowd is teaching these young people, we should be appalled. What good can come of telling a 15-year-old girl she is a victim? Do we really want to create citizens who will spend the rest of their lives believing some irreversible force is holding them back from achievement?
Our government has also weakened our sense of responsibility. Over the past half-century, our politicians and bureaucrats have created the “nanny state,” programs designed to assist people such as the poor, the homeless, and single mothers. All too often, however, those good intentions have created dependency rather than helping people get back on their feet and striking out on their own.
Our therapeutic culture has as well released some of our citizens from the weight of accountability. Though therapy offers many benefits to those in need of it, there is a real danger that the patient will emerge from this counseling blaming her parents for her flaws rather than taking ownership of them and seeking self-improvement.
Finally, our age of moral relativism diminishes accountability. When we as individuals proclaim ourselves moral arbiters, when we take relativism too far—“My truth is not your truth,” “Different strokes for different folks,” “I can do whatever I want as long as I don’t hurt anybody,” which is a near impossibility—our culture is certain to shatter, unable to bear the weight of so many different principles and standards.
As Peterson writes in “12 Rules,” “Perhaps, if we lived properly, we could withstand the knowledge of our own fragility and mortality, without the sense of aggrieved victimhood that produces, first, resentment, then envy, and then the desire for vengeance and destruction.”
“If we lived properly:” by this Peterson means exercising responsibility and following some basic universal rules to steer us through the trials normal to the human condition.
Throughout the whole of history, men and women have sought pathways that increase their happiness and their well-being. The Bible offers the Ten Commandments; Marcus Aurelius found the answer in stoicism; a young Benjamin Franklin devised a list of 13 virtues for living a good life. Like Jordan Peterson, hundreds of writers in the past century alone have written self-help books laying out philosophical and practical ways for readers to improve their lives.
And nearly all of these mentors stress the importance of taking control of ourselves, of overcoming our vices, whatever they are, and embracing the good. Many of them offer the same basic advice and rules: Know and practice the virtues, help your neighbor when you can, work to provide for your family, get your own life in order before you try to change the world, and don’t blame others when you fail to live up to these standards.
Teaching Our Children
One of the great gifts we can hand on to our young people is the ability to take charge of their lives. We can teach them this lesson from an early age, reading stories to them like “The Little Red Hen,” Mercer Mayer’s “I Just Forgot,” or Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” As they grow older, we can introduce them to the heroes of history who took on various tasks, made tough decisions, and held themselves liable for the results. The acceptance of responsibility by great figures from our past, and there are many of them, might be summed up by the sign that used to sit on President Harry Truman’s desk in the White House: “The buck stops here.”
Chores are another ideal tool for teaching maturity. As in the lessons learned from literature and history, we can introduce children at an early age to the idea of helping around the house, keeping their bedrooms tidy, and performing a myriad of other small tasks.
The 4-year-old girl who lives across the street from me helps her mom by setting the supper table every evening and enjoys the sensation of being a mother’s helper, so much so that she asks for extra chores. Older children I know routinely shovel snow from the sidewalk and driveway, mow the lawn, and babysit their younger siblings. Such work helps prepare them for the responsibilities of a job outside their home in their teenage years, and from there for living on their own and taking care of themselves.
School also plays an enormous part in this training. A well-written essay delivered on time to the teacher is a sign of maturity. The 10th-grader who forgets that same essay at home will be docked a letter grade for its late arrival. Should the parent deliver it to the school, or let her son suffer the consequences and learn a lesson in personal accountability?
Every day, practically every hour of every day, offers us opportunities to build up and strengthen our sense of duty and obligation. If married, we have a responsibility to love and care for our spouse, even on those awful days when everything at work went wrong or when the toddlers drove us crazy at home with their bickering. If we have children, we have a responsibility to raise them as best we can to be thoughtful and kind, strong in the face of adversity, to be unafraid to speak the truth when the occasion demands, and much more.
In the world outside the home, our greatest responsibility derives from the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This old adage covers every situation, from giving your boss a full day’s work to treating the clerk in the convenience store with politeness. It’s really that simple.
Through early training and much practice, we can make responsibility less weight on our shoulders and more a part of our nature. We can never rid ourselves entirely of that yoke of personal commitment to duty, but we can grow stronger and carry it more easily.
And here’s another piece of good news: The more we teach and exercise responsibility, the better we make the world around us.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.