Often when we hear the word responsibility, a sigh might occur shortly afterwards. We have enough responsibilities, why do we need another one? Maybe we don’t want to be responsible for some things. Not the existentialist. The existentialist sees responsibility as a core of human beings. Responsibility is intrinsically connected with the realm of morality. But no need to worry, this is in fact something positive instead of negative.
We are thrown in this world, which means that we didn’t have a choice to be born. Our parents had a good night together (or put an egg cell and sperm cell together in a tube) and most of the time 9 months later we come out in this world. As a sperm or egg cell, we didn’t have the choice of not being fertilized. We’re here. What now?
The existentialist claims that you now have to actualize your existence. You are, but you don’t just exist in the existentialist sense, which means that you are not yet what it is to fully be. You are tasked with the challenge of creating who you are. You have to actualize your humanity, what it is to be human. You can do this in many different ways. There are painters, politicians, policemen, and other kinds of people that don’t necessarily start with the letter p, who are currently actualizing themselves. The thing is that you need a project to work on. You can choose that project, but you don’t choose that you choose a project. You necessarily choose a project (even if subconsciously) from the fact that you are thrown in the world.
This brings upon you the unspeakable burden of responsibility. Again, sometimes we might wish we had less responsibilities, but this isn’t just the responsibility to show up somewhere on time. It is the responsibility of your own being. And this is an optimistic claim, even though it might not seem that way at first. Claiming that you have the responsibility to actualize your being, implies that you are actually able to do that. If we didn’t have that capacity, we wouldn’t have that responsibility. This doesn’t mean that you can be anything, there are biological, psychological and sociological limitations. It means that you can choose what you are and actively pursue that goal. You are responsible for you want to be. That’s where your freedom lies.
If you’re playing video games or watching Netflix all the time and you feel bad doing it because it isn’t meaningful, then you have the ability (and the responsibility) to change your projects. Like I said, you always choose a project, but at least you have the freedom to choose your project, otherwise people will choose for you (and that as well is a choice). When people choose for you then your ideal image of yourself will not correspond with the actions that you are taking, since they are actions required to achieve the ideal self of the one choosing for you. This discrepancy causes discomfort in the subject. It doesn’t feel like you’re living. It feels like you’re being lived. You are not living the active life, but the passive life.
There are a lot of positive things about living a passive life, or not taking up responsibility. You don’t have to think for yourself, which feels secure. You don’t need to put value into something, which means that things don’t matter if they are gone. Things are never your fault, since you’re not responsible for them. That also means that you cannot fail. This means you live your life in immediateness, as Kierkegaard would write. You live the life of a child. We can look nostalgically back to when we were a child, but nothing is sadder than an adult who still behaves like a child. Living this passive life means that you always have to act in accordance with someone else. You always do what they want you to do, or if you want to do something, you’ll have to ask for permission. The example that comes to mind is the 20-year-old, who still asks his/her parents if he/she is allowed to go out. The passive life is an easy way of living, but also highly unmeaningful.
The active life, however, is the life that actively engages in creating your being. In the active life you willfully take on projects that you find meaningful and create what Kierkegaard calls, a continuity. This continuity implies that you look in the past and in the future for your projects and stick to the projects you choose. You are responsible for these projects, which means when they fail it’s on you. This creates discomfort, which is why this is a hard life to lead. Even though some things might not be your fault, you have the responsibility to deal with it. It might not be your fault that you have a certain disease, but it’s your responsibility to deal with it.
And again, this is the optimistic part of responsibility. If you actually take responsibility on making things better, things will get better. Even if only because you look positively towards the future. Like Nietzsche said, become someone who says yes to life. Carry the burden of being and do what is in your power to do. That is the true meaning of shouldering responsibility and the true meaning of optimism. Things can be better, it’s only up to us to do something about it.