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“Duty done is the soul’s fireside” (Robert Browning).
YOU’D BE HARD PUT TO NAME A BETTER FEELING THAN THE FEELING OF KNOWING YOU’VE DONE WHAT WAS RIGHT. The simple knowledge that we’ve acted with integrity, doing to the best of our ability the thing that most needed to be done, is not only one of life’s greatest pleasures, but it’s also one that’s widely available. This is a “fireside” anyone can enjoy at the end of the day.
It’s never entirely accurate to say we had no choice but to do a wrong thing. Responsibility literally means “response-ability,” the ability to respond. As free moral agents, we’re able to choose our response, no matter what the circumstances may be that confront us and call for a decision. We’re never responsible for doing anything that is impossible; we’re only held accountable for doing what we can — and nothing that’s truly within our duty is ever out of our reach. “I ought, therefore I can” is how Immanuel Kant put it.
Most of us want to be treated as responsible people are treated. But the key to responsible treatment is being responsible. A reputation for responsibility has to be gotten the old-fashioned way: it has to be earned. And having been earned, it has to be maintained carefully. When we violate the principles of responsibility and accountability, it takes a long time to repair the damage we’ve done to our name.
We lift a great burden from the shoulders of others when we accept the idea of our own responsibility. When those we deal with every day know we can be counted on to do what’s right and to be accountable for our own actions, they can rest easy in their relationship with us. It’s a magnificent gift when we can say to others (and mean it), “I will hold up my end of our duties. You can count on me.”
Responsibility is often looked at as a negative word these days, along with obligation, duty, and similar words. But doing our duty need not be a dreary business. If we choose, we can listen appreciatively to the voice of conscience. It’s mostly a matter of how we see life: is it something to be refused or something to be received?
I slept and dreamed that life was joy,
I awoke and saw that life was duty,
I acted, and behold duty was joy.