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Nathanael Garrett Novosel, September 29 2021

Meaning Requires Rights and Responsibilities

To live your life in the most meaningful, flourishing way possible, you have to have freedom.  In a modern, organized society, there is always an authority of some sort, almost always the government, that is meant to balance the freedoms and liberties of the individual with the safety and well-being of the group.  The main means through which society protects individual liberty from the tyranny of the government or the majority is the idea of rights.  Human rights allow people to grow in the way that they see fit as long as they don’t infringe on others’ rights.

There is a lot of talk about rights today.  The right to speak out against the government or even just state your opinion.  The right to protect yourself with a weapon powerful enough to overtake someone much larger than you with their own weapon.  The right to love whom you want.  The right to make your own choices about your own body.  Rights are critical because you cannot live your best life without them.  Someone could hurt you if you could not defend yourself; you cannot explore new ideas if you’ll be persecuted for simply saying something that others don’t like or agree with.

But meaning and fulfillment also require responsibility.  Being responsible for your actions.  Being responsible for taking care of the people that matter to you.  Being responsible for making the world a better place or protecting it from danger and harm.  People don’t think about responsibility because it usually requires effort, risk, and restraint…but it is just as important as rights in helping people find meaning in their lives.

Many people want all of the rights and none of the responsibility.  I jokingly call this “spoiled teenager syndrome” after kids who get old enough to want to go out on their own and do whatever they want but don’t want any of the responsibility of chores, jobs, and other burdens that would come with those added freedoms.  Unfortunately, as society gets more safe and abundant, the upcoming generation gets more privileges without getting the associated responsibilities.  In earlier societies, children helped on farms or with management of their family restaurant or store.  Now, children go to school for up to 26 years (or more!) without much more responsibility than getting decent grades and staying out of trouble.  Work is much less frequent and strenuous, and risks and dangers are low and rare, respectively.

So what are the consequences of this change?  A greater percentage of people want more and more from others, not realizing that someone who is not them is paying the price for their demands.  Free ______ “for all” (read: for them)?  People pay for that, so it’s not free—not that the people benefiting care at all.  Demanding a right not to have to work?  Other people will have to work to pay for those benefits, which effectively makes anyone who works a de facto slave to anyone who doesn’t work and still receives money.  And what are those people’s responsibilities?  Nothing other than to take care of themselves.  We risk living in a world where people only care about themselves and people who don’t take responsibility and choose to further burden the people who choose to take responsibility.  This “not it” society would not end well.

But, no matter how bad the price of the irresponsibles’ actions on the responsible people’s actions, they’re also hurting themselves (ironically).  Responsibility is essential to meaning.  Placing meaning on something means that you grant it importance and significance, you care about it, and you are, therefore, willing to work and sacrifice for it.  A society that takes no responsibility is one that places no value on anything, cares about nothing but superficial, trivial pleasures, and loses fundamental attributes to a meaningful life such as respect, true love, and work toward a better future for yourself and others.  Parents find great meaning in helping the children they're responsible for; leaders find great meaning in guiding the organizations they're responsible for.  Responsibility is the source of some of the most meaningful, rewarding work humans can do.

A world without rights is a world devoid of the freedom to live your best life; a world without responsibilities is a nihilistic, selfish world full of meaningless, hedonistic pleasures.  A meaningful life requires both, and to either try to reduce your own responsibility necessary to live a good life or lower the bar for everyone else detracts from their ability to realize their own potential.

One who doesn’t learn the value, importance, and rewards of responsibility will avoid it forever and self-destruct from drugs, alcohol, or other addictions as they keep seeking highs and avoiding anything that is less than perfectly comfortable and pleasurable.  But pleasure is not the point of life; meaning is.  Unfortunately, the people who have had been alleviated of all responsibility will never understand its rewards.

People will always rise (or lower) to your level of expectations of them.  If you expect nothing, you will get nothing.  If you expect much, you will see people meet and exceed your expectations—and, if they shoot for the moon and miss, they’ll still be amongst the stars.

Appreciate and defend your rights, but appreciate and defend your responsibilities as well.  People who are treated like children will act like them; people who are treated like adults will act like them.  If the point of life is growth, you want to treat others and yourself as if you’ll reach your full potential if you keep striving for it.

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Nathanael Garrett Novosel

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