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Ethan Nichtern

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The Meaning of 'Personal Responsibility': A Buddhist Response to Mitt Romney

Posted: 09/28/2012 12:36 pm

Former Gov. Mitt Romney was caught on tape at a fundraiser saying that most people who voted for Barack Obama, 47 percent of the country, are "dependent" and he would "never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." Actually, about 53 percent of the country voted for Obama in 2008, so Romney's comments were really directed to the majority of the public he wishes to serve.

First off, I'd like to say I have tremendous empathy for Mr. Romney. The path of public speaking is a treacherous one, and I also dread people with strong agendas taking things I say out of context and publicizing them. On the very minor level of public persona in which I operate, things I say are often taken out of context, and it A) sucks and B) makes me try very hard to qualify any statements I make and contextualize them properly. Running for president has to be an awful awful endeavor of foot-in-mouth anxieties, so let's have some compassion for anyone willing to step out on this brutal stage of public life.

At the same time, on reflection, as someone who voted for Obama in 2008 and after careful consideration plans to vote for Obama again, I also feel deeply personally insulted by Romney's statement that I am some kind of freeloader because I don't support his candidacy. Given that I have spent my entire life working, and working hard, in non-profit and mind/body service and educational professions, and also given that I clearly pay a higher rate of federal income tax than Romney himself, the comments especially sting. In fact, if I am fully and totally mindful, they bring up an internal "f--- you, you entitled bastard," knee-jerk reaction. But that's just an initial reaction, natural to the human mind, which can easily be labeled as thinking as I bring myself back to the real issues at hand, which are the world-views and views of self-empowerment and independence underlying the comments Romney made. And in that light, this seems the perfect opportunity to begin and discussion of what it means, from a Buddhist perspective, to really take personal responsibility.

The first relevant premise of Buddhism seems quite conservative on its face: the basic premise is that nobody, and we mean nobody, is going to save you from your own mind. Nobody can get into your experience and fix anything for you. If you want to make your own internal experience more hospitable, only you can do the work. Others can always help support and guide you, and everyone needs a supporting environment but at the end of the day, you are your own boss and your own agent of understanding your mind and opening your heart. No one else can work with your karma for you. Nothing has been more profound for me than taking this teaching to heart, especially when I fall on difficult emotional times.

The second premise of Buddhism seems to totally contradict the first. Everything, and we mean everything, is interdependent. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Guess what: whatever is built, you really didn't build it alone. Co-creation is just the very way our universe is structured, the way EVERYTHING happens, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others have noted. It is telling that in critiquing Obama at the Republican National Convention, conservatives had to use the phrase "WE did build that." Note the WE. Nothing ever, ever gets built alone. Not wealth and not poverty. Even conservatives have to cede that point, whether it's admitted.

How do we then reconcile the above two premises, which seem to directly contradict each other? Here's what I believe. The second premise, interdependence, provides the proper and appropriate context for understanding the first premise, personal responsibility. In other words, it is when we begin to understand interdependence that we see the true importance of personal responsibility. Once we see that nothing happens in a vacuum, that all beings are really in this together, that's the exact moment that we are properly inspired to become responsible for our own mind. To preach personal responsibility without preaching interdependence seems to isolate our view of life outside of its true context. Thus, the version of personal responsibility which Romney espouses in these comments is one that is isolated, fearful and lacking in empathy. The version of personal responsibility that come from seeing interdependence is inclusive, courageous and deeply empathetic

That's the difference between Romney's version of personal responsibility and a dharmic version of personal responsibility understood in the context of interdependence.

It should be obvious, but all views expressed here are mine and mine alone. Please keep any comments respectful. We are all still learning how to live together on this planet.

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