We imagine responsibility as a weight.
This imagined foe finds expression in the metaphorical language we all use.
Responsibility is something we hold, bear, carry or shoulder. Responsibility is a heavy, weighty thing that can be handed over, dodged or ducked.
Sometimes responsibility even falls on us.
No wonder that, in our most solemn moments of responsibility, we speak — quite literally — of the ‘gravity’ of the situation.
This Is A Terrible Metaphor
Responsibility doesn’t behave like a weight.
A weight on your shoulders will always slow you down, drag you down, bring you down.
But responsibility doesn’t always feel like that, does it? Hell — I don’t think it even often feels like that.
If responsibility were a force (metaphorically speaking), then it wouldn’t be gravity.
Most of the time, responsibility is empowering: it gives us the energy and motivation we need to achieve cool things.
I’m sure you can think of many times in the past when someone handed over responsibility to you — and it made you feel lighter, stronger, faster, energised, electrified and empowered.
The Thing Got Done. Right?
Far from being a gravitational, weight-like thing, responsibility is much more like a vitalising force that we absorb, store, conduct or distribute.
Yep: a better energetic metaphor for responsibility is electricity.
One idiomatic hint that responsibility truly is more electrical than gravitational: we say that the person responsible for a task is the person ‘in charge’. I found this amusing.
Where a cumbrous weight will always slow us down, electricity, when it’s hooked up right, can grant us superhuman speed — like one of those mad scooters you get nowadays.
Okay, cool. So we’re agreed that responsibility isn’t a weight, but an electricomagnetic energy. Where does that lead us?
The Party Balloon Of Expectation
We can imagine now that the responsibility for any given task is generated energetically from the expectations and obligations involved, like the build-up of static between a woolly jumper (obligations) and a party balloon (expectations).
The more friction between obligation and expectation, the bigger the metaphorical electrostatic charge and the bigger the energetic potential of responsibility.
Energy = exciting!
Yes, but a word of warning too.
Once generated, that high charge of responsibility can suddenly seem scarily high voltage.
Oh shit. A hundred people at the party and no balloons.
Even more worryingly: all the energy we’ve generated between obligations and expectations has a worrying propensity to be discharged through the nearest conductive surface.
This is exactly like — you see where I’m going — electricity.
Yesterday, for example, a 25,000 volt overhead cable fell onto a Birmingham railway line, causing ‘a spectacular fire with sparks, flames and smoke’.
That’s a lot of electrons spurting very quickly out of a literal fire hose.
Anyway. Don’t be scared. This is the wont of electrical charges, the world over, from time immemorial. This is the natural order of things.
And such is responsibility.
If you find yourself as the only conductive surface for an enormous electrostatic fire hose of responsibility, then god help you.
In plainer English: if you try to conduct all that responsibility through yourself, all alone, then you’re going to fry.
Like a tree caught in a flash of lightning, you’re going to burn out.
Stretching The Metaphor
Watching that touch-it-and-you-die 25,000 volt cable thrash around Birmingham of a summer’s day, it can seem a bit wild to remember that humans willingly generate electricity.
Oodles and oodles of the stuff.
Just today, just in the UK, humans have generated 608.3 gigawatt-hours.
For scale, imagine the UK is a building site and imagine that everyone on that building site has been working hard for eight hours.
In order to get through 608.3 gigawatt-hours of energy, that building site would need as many builders as India has people.
I’m not sure that scale model helped, but the point is that we generate a huge amount of power in this country and yet, somehow, we share it around, more or less safely (Birmingham railway notwithstanding) and then use it to do loads of really cool stuff like typing emails to strangers on the Internet when really we should be stuffing our faces with birthday banana bread.
Given how destructive electricity can be, isn’t that marvellous?
Responsibility is the same.
We generate oodles and oodles of the stuff, every day of our lives, because it’s a powerful motivating force that helps us do loads of really cool stuff.
Yes, it can turn us into charred steak quicker than you could say ‘medium-rare’ — but only if we try to absorb it alone or conduct too much all at once.
If instead, like the national grid, we find a way to distribute that energy — share it with friends, colleagues, sauna buddies — then together we can power all manner of wondrous things.
End of metaphor.
Responsibility is a powerful force: share it around or you’ll get fried.
Or, to wilfully paraphrase Spider-Man:
With great responsibility comes great responsibility.
Etymological Side Note: What’s response got to do with responsibility?
According to the OED, a response was, originally, the answer given to a question asked of an oracle. A response is a reply: an answer.
If you are responsible, then you are the one answerable for that duty: you’re accountable.