"The Only Thing You Have to do is Die": The Responsibility and Freedom Paradox

When I was a child, an elderly man shared these words with me:

“The only thing you have to do is die”.  These words really stuck for me. In one way, his words were harsh because they reminded me that yes, I will die. In another way, his words were very liberating. “Really?” I asked, surprised and kind of excited.

“Yes, really,” he said kindly, “Everything else is a choice with consequences”. 

For awhile, I forgot about these words. Then, gratefully, I began to remember them and apply this simple yet rather radical approach to my personal and professional life.

 Imagine the following scenario:

A friend or a family member asks you to attend an event with them. When they ask you, you notice you don’t really want to go. Maybe you’re feeling tired and just want some down time, or maybe you know you have not enjoyed this type of event in the past. But, you find yourself saying, “Yeah, sure, I’ll be there”. Later on, you may notice you feel mad at yourself or you feel down because you made a commitment that you really don’t want to keep. A few hours later, another friend or family member phones you and asks you to attend an event with them on the same night. Maybe you notice that you feel excited about this possibility or maybe you notice that you don’t want to go to that event with them either. You say, “Oh, I’m sorry I can’t go, I have to go to __________”. The listener accepts your decline to their invitation and all is well. Or is it? Maybe you notice that you’re frustrated with yourself again because you’ve said “Yes” when you really felt “No” to one invitation and you’ve said “No” (indirectly) when you really felt “Yes” to another invitation. You may feel trapped or burdened. Or, you may notice that you’re relieved because you really didn’t want to go to the second event either and it was easy for you to get out of because you said couldn’t go because you have to be somewhere else. Phew!

If this scenario sounds familiar, you are surely not alone. Most of us find it very challenging to accept full responsibility for our choices. We may fear the uncomfortable feelings that may arise in us if we are more responsible for our choices. We may fear dealing with other peoples’ difficult emotions if we take more responsibilities for our choices.

When we shift from avoiding responsibility to consciously taking more responsibility for our choices, we can no longer rely on the comfort, however deceiving it may be, of blaming others. In a way, blaming others for our choices makes us feel kind of free.  It’s the kind of freedom that we might feel from not taking responsibility for what is ours. This is the kind of freedom that is associated with, for example, not picking up the dog poo that your dog has just deposited in the public park. You may feel kind of “free” as you sneak away from picking it up, hoping that no one witnessed the event. But there’s most likely guilt and anxiety that go with this kind of responsibility avoidance. Even if picking up the dog poo is unpleasant or even really tough, it seems that the responsible choice to make would be to muster up the courage, pick it up, and throw it away. We tend to feel better afterwards, and the next person that comes along in the park will too.

There’s a paradox at work in our lives in the relationship between taking responsibility and feeling an increased sense of freedom. Even though sometimes it is initially more painful to accept more responsibility for our choices, as we practice doing so, we tend to feel more empowered and hence, more free.

As we learn to resist the urge to blame someone else for our behaviour, we tend to feel less victimized or helpless, out of control, or anxious. In the initial moment of deciding to accept responsibility for what is ours, anxiety may increase. It can feel scary to step up into saying “Yes, I did that. I’m sorry” or “No, I don’t want to do that. Thank you for asking.” We may fear the consequences of such a clear statement. Maybe the other person will attack us by saying, “See, it is your fault!” or maybe they will be hurt because we said “No” to them. It is a risk to take more responsibility. Yet the reward is feeling freer, in a real way. To me, that is well worth the temporary discomfort or squirming of my ego that comes from accepting more responsibility for my choices. In my work with people in my counselling practice, I look for opportunities to gently yet clearly remind people that they can shift from blaming to taking responsibility for what is theirs. I have seen individuals or couples I work with show a little discomfort about this initially, but then express that they feel more honest, empowered, free, and relaxed.

The therapeutic interventions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness Practice are incredibly helpful tools for increasing our awareness of our behaviours, and better yet, transforming them. For instance, CBT invites us to practice “thought challenging”. That means we become more aware of what we are thinking and frequently ask ourselves if the story we are spinning regarding whatever situation is really the whole picture or the only way to look at it. We challenge our thoughts or perceptions by saying to ourselves something like, “Okay, I perceive this situation like this. What else might be going on? Is there another way to look at it?”. The practice of Mindfulness, which has its roots in Buddhism, offers us a way to increase our ability to stop and notice, in a nonjudgmental way, what is going on within ourselves and around us, moment to moment.     

 If you like, try this exercise that applies the interventions discussed above:

 Pay more attention to the language you use. Notice if you are using language that kind of enslaves you or liberates you. Look for words like: have to, can’t, and should. If you notice yourself using these words, check in with yourself in a nonjudgmental way. Notice what it feels like for you. Notice any bodily sensations or images associated with these words. Then, if you like, challenge yourself to say the same thing over without the “I have to”. What would it be like to say, “I am choosing to…?”.

Continue this practice regularly and notice what happens.

My hope is that you will feel stronger, freer, and ultimately, happier. Then, maybe, dealing with the one and only have to of death may be a little easier.