Sometimes, when I see a quote that I have loved, it is much like a visit from an old friend who stops by only briefly and yet warms your heart. As with most beloved quotes, my friend came at a most opportune time.
The biblical scholar Hillel is credited with the following quote: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’?”
The quotation speaks to one of my favorite topics: Responsibility.
True, we are responsible for ourselves and our own actions.
Interestingly, type “responsibility” into a search engine and ask a question such as “Why aren’t people responsible anymore?” You are liable to find several articles on the topic of parents being responsible for their children and children being aware of their rights (presumably so they can become uninhibited). It is all so troublesome to me. In fact, the whole topic of responsibility has had me thinking a lot these past months, if not the last couple of years.
Hillel’s quote is divided into two equal parts. One cannot stand without the other. When he wrote this quote back in ancient Babylonia, he stood on the mountain top of wisdom. While he could not see 2020, he could see those around him. Much has not changed. Part one is about ourselves; part two is about others.
Being for ourselves does not mean we are just responsible for ourselves. The responsibility is about how we “walk around” in this world. Of course, we must be our own best friend, take care of our families, and of course, we must do the right thing and be ethical souls, but I think it goes beyond that.
If I make a mistake, I had better own up to it. If I hurt someone I need to apologize, whether to my child or to the mail carrier. I have taught my children to “own up” as well. When you make an oversight, own it!
My responsibility to life should allow me to understand how precious are my days and weeks; they add up to years, and we don’t have enough of them. I must explore the beauty of this earth, and take in art and music and even the hobbies that are unique to me. In short, I must do all I can to enjoy my life and to enjoy this ride that is life.
My responsibility to my life tells me to shut down the computer and the digital devices, turn off Netflix, and enjoy a conversation with my family and friends. My responsibility to myself tells me to be more content with what I have and to be thankful for a multitude of blessings regardless of my circumstances. I’m not talking about material things, but things that make my heart soar: the smiles of my grandchildren, hearing the words “I love you” when they are spoken genuinely; to appreciate my freedoms and my health; to understand that everything I have can be fleeting and that health, wealth, and security are illusory.
Being for myself means never forgetting the audiences, both virtual and in-person, who have appreciated my message. Being responsible for myself in all of these ways motivates me to start each day reading my Bible and end with a prayer. For indeed, I have known hardship and sorrow in 2020, and I will never forget how it refocused me and how far I have come.
Now we come to the “what am I?” portion of the famous quotation. Many times, over the year, I have written about people who are negative, and whether intentional or unplanned, surround us with their negative energy.
The majority of negative people are the tortured souls who care only for themselves, and I will never be one of those. Nor should you. For I believe that negative people, who are only for themselves, have lost genuine compassion and understanding. Negative parents raise children who only see pessimism; negative teachers and mentors develop unconstructive students, and melodramatic people see bleak outcomes and socialize in drama. You have to take responsibility for your actions. You only look like a fool when you try to blame other people or circumstances for your behavior.
I believe we are put on this earth to help, support, empower, and create peace. Negative and self-regarding people can’t do it, and won’t do it. In terms of our families and friends, we must be responsible enough to open our hearts to the hardships of others.
If I, personally, can raise up someone who is fallen, I will try. If I can make a difference using my skills and passion, and energy, I will. I know that I have a responsibility to life itself. I know that I am nothing as a person if I only view the world through the lens of “me” and not “us.”
I suppose that at the end of the day, I’d like to be known as a man who was responsible. Responsible to myself surely, but a man who saw his responsibility in terms of what he could do to lift-up those around him. If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.