The Responsibility Illusion

I’ve had some conversations with a couple of friends over the last several weeks about this topic. One of them wrote an entry today that finally kicked me over the fence.

I always wished my life had been different. When I was in elementary, I didn’t start out shy and crusty. My first through third grade years I was very popular, and even had a “girlfriend.” In fourth grade, my parents decided to put me into a different school, where I had to start over with new classmates. I had one friend at the new school, Gabe, and other than that… I was considered a big dork.

The year after that, my parents switched me back, but most of my friends had joined their little cliques. I don’t know what changed between 3rd and 5th grade, but whatever it was, it was major. I no longer had any confidence. I no longer knew how to talk to people or make friends.

And to their credit, most of the guys were nice to me even though I was a dork with no confidence. They couldn’t understand what had changed either. And no, I still don’t know to this day. The girls were a different story. They were openly cruel and insulting… but I suppose girls were designed to be cruel towards dorky guys at that age.

As I went through junior high and high school, I managed to make a couple of friends, but I could never manage the confidence to ask a girl out. I decided a way to cover up my insecurity was to say I didn’t want to date in high school. I said it so often I think I started to believe the crap I was selling.

It wasn’t just dating. I never hung out with friends outside of school. When I graduated, I never talked to anyone from high school again. I started college, and still… I never went out with friends, never partied, never did the normal things that college students do. I told myself it was because I was a non-traditional student. I just didn’t have time between school, work, and church responsibilities.

Responsibilities. Another word for “excuse.” When friends would go out after school, I’d go home because I had to work early in the morning. When work friends would have parties, I wouldn’t go because I had church responsibilities. When church friends would have events, I’d skip them to do homework.

Yes, I dated a girl briefly when I was 18. I dated a girl briefly when I was 22. I dated one briefly when I was 24. That’s it. And each time I dated someone, it was because we were friends and it just accidentally worked out that way. I was incapable of asking someone out… Along the way, there were opportunities, but I was blind to them. They weren’t even in my field of view because I was too busy living in the mental “box” I had created for myself.

When I was 24, I really liked a girl. A lot. But I was busy… 60-80 hours a week at work, 18 hours of classes, plus playing in a church praise band. Responsibilities were again an excuse for not letting myself get “too involved” with her… whatever that means.

I saw people my entire life having so much fun… partying, dating, going out with friends. And my theory that people who partied too much would never end up in a good, solid long-term relationship was at odds with what actually happened. It turned out that a lot of people were wild when they were young, and then settled down and acted like adults when they were… well, adults.

Am I saying I acted like an adult my entire life, not at all. But I do know that I excluded myself from a lot of things that I didn’t need to. I missed a lot of opportunities to build friendships and memories that I’ll never have again. Now, I’m at an age when people expect me to act the way I act. It’s not “normal” for someone my age to act like an idiot.

I guess one of the things that made me realize I’ve missed out, was I started thinking about my eventual wedding. Who would be groomsmen? Well, there’s my brother, obviously. But I could only think of one other person I would be able to ask. Say what you will, that’s pathetic.

Hindsight is 20-20, and now it doesn’t seem quite so important that I acted “responsibly” all those years. I did things backwards… delaying gratification, and then discovered it doesn’t work if you do it backwards. You have to play by the rules of the system, or the system is going to beat you.

In talking with friends about this, I think what dawned on me was that I avoided a different kind of regret. As Kierkegaard said “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.” People who were wild and “fun” have regrets, too. But still, many of them get to move on to lives very similar to what I have now…

I have an almost impossible time believing that people can change to be more responsible and mature, yet the proof is all around me. Perhaps the reason is that I don’t want to believe it, because it points out the folly of my own decisions.

The truth is, much of life is built on path dependency. You begin in a direction, and each decision more firmly embeds you in that direction. The longer you persist, the more difficult it is to change directions. I see this every day in business… businesses run themselves into bankruptcy by “doing what they’ve always done.” It’s the path of least resistance.

Now I have an opportunity to do things differently than I’ve done before. I have a job that has MUCH more reasonable hours of operation than my old one. (albeit a much more mentally demanding job) I take far fewer classes at a time than I used to. I’m not involved in church music anymore. I don’t have the stigma of living at home.

I have a wonderful girlfriend who seems to think very highly of me. I have made some new friends in the last year, and I’ve got a couple that I’ve had for several years. I’m ready to abandon my philosophy of “responsibility over happiness.”

The responsibility illusion has created a great deal regret… not for the things I’ve done in my life, but for the things I haven’t done. Don’t let the responsibility illusion keep you from living your life to the fullest.


  18 comments for “The Responsibility Illusion

  1. January 26, 2006 at 12:50 pm

    I think that Kierkegaard quote is totally accurate – no matter what you do, there will be regret of some sort for something you did – or didn’t – do. I know that’s certainly true for me. For instance, I created my fear of flying in my mind so strongly, that I’ve spent ten years not going ANYWHERE because of it. And I’m not doing that anymore. Sure, I’m probably going to piss myself and have a heart attack on the plane, but at least I’m finally going. 🙂

  2. January 26, 2006 at 12:51 pm

    I think that is the best post you have ever written! bravo! Now quit regretting your former life and celebrate in every way the one you have now and the fabulous future you have to look forward to. Really, let your hair down … um … 😀

  3. January 26, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    Congrats on getting on a plane, Andria. Seriously, it’s just like riding on a bus, only they don’t give you peanuts on the bus.

    You might want to take some Dramamine, though… it’ll make you so sleepy you won’t care.

    Thanks DK… I’m happy to finally let my hair down…

  4. January 26, 2006 at 4:10 pm



    I am going to respond to this, but I have NO idea what I’m going to say just yet. I think I have to read this about fourteen more times first.

  5. Livieloo
    January 26, 2006 at 5:00 pm

    I don’t remember a lot about you when we were younger because I was so young. But I do remember what a nice guy you were. I believe life is all about balance you can have both you just need the right amount of each, at the right time.
    Do you remember when you saved my life? I almost drowned in our flooded garden and just as I was about to go under (I couldn’t really swim then) you grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out. Thanks Incredipete, you’re the greatest.

  6. January 26, 2006 at 5:01 pm

    This is exactly what I have in mind when people criticize my parenting techniques. Children weren’t meant to behave like “little adults”; they are meant to behave like CHILDREN. Now, there are well behaved children and not-so-well behaved children but to insist that they not act like who they are is ridiculous.

    Not that that had anything to do with you but that’s what immediately came to mind. I can see you now, Incredipete; 50 years old and having that midlife crisis, acting like the teenager you never acted like. 😉

  7. January 26, 2006 at 5:53 pm

    I hope that means I get to have a red corvette…

  8. January 26, 2006 at 6:36 pm

    HA!! This is the best thing you have ever written!! You went deep into the psyche, examined yourself, identified the problem, and have taken steps to improve it. I know it seems that I have just as many excuses because I have yet to show up to one of your shin digs and I do appologize. I have an idea…a olive branch if you will for my flakiness. Email me and I’ll let you in on the plan.

  9. January 27, 2006 at 4:32 am

    Being “fun” is not necessarily synonymous with being “immature.”
    While I think you have a flaccid opinion of your OWN funness, I can only say two things:
    -It’s never to late too do something crazy; and
    -I seem to remember talking to a young couple who were sitting on their livingroom floor one evening, playing with legos and giggling. Sounds fun to me, and a great outcome to your first quarter century on Earth.

  10. January 27, 2006 at 10:09 am

    The word “flaccid” is HOT.


  11. HRT
    January 27, 2006 at 1:21 pm

    Well done Sir-Peta-a-lot. And it confirms some of my suspicions which are that no matter how responsible, well-mannered, mature, good, right, cool, whatever, you may think someone is, that person has regrets. It’s not about what you’ve done, but who you are, who you’ve become. And all of our life’s experiences make us who we are, for better or for worse.

    …hmmm I think I feel a post of my very own coming on….

  12. Rik
    January 27, 2006 at 7:54 pm

    I feel your pain. I was never really “the man” when it comes to the ladies. Still ain’t. My girlfriend in HS basically asked me to prom and it progressed from there. My next girlfriend was kinda a friend of a friend… I’m still working on my confidence.
    Glad to know you’re going to start having fun, though!

  13. January 27, 2006 at 9:00 pm

    I’m glad about it, too!

  14. HRT
    January 27, 2006 at 9:50 pm

    I was a late bloomer myself, I didn’t develop much confidence until I was well on my way to walking down the aisle with my bride.


  15. RDC
    January 28, 2006 at 2:18 am

    Well put! I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing wrong with playing “catch up” though, even if folks look at you a little funny.

  16. January 28, 2006 at 5:38 am

    That was an incredible entry (I almost wrote “Incredi-entry” but realized that would mean I’d have to kick myself in the junk). Seriously well written and said.
    I can frighteningly relate to that theory of “responsibility over happiness.” I think that both of us have fallen in love with some women that are teaching us it doesn’t have to be that way.
    Good on ya’ mate. Fuckin’ Good On Ya.
    Smoochies to you and yer girl.

  17. January 31, 2006 at 12:08 pm

    If it’s any consolation, Seth is my only groomsman sort of guy friend too, besides you…I have “buddies, but it’s different. Mostly it’s hard to make guy friends if you are high D. And it’s easy to make girl friends, but not girlfriends. And I even went to KU and partied for a while…

  18. February 1, 2006 at 11:32 am

    At 33, I’m still getting in trouble for acting like an idiot. I have no idea how I’ve accomplished any level of success except that my bosses and customers seem to like me a little bit. I don’t even want to think about what I could do with the drive that you have. I was the constant “Extremely bright but doesn’t apply himself” report card kid.

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