Responsibility Does Not Equal Control

With great power comes great responsibility.” -Spiderman

Peter Parker was wrong. Unfortunately, equating control (power) with responsibility is a common misconception people have. This is the notion that we are responsible for what we have the power to directly control. Although this notion is pleasing to our senses of equality and justice, it doesn’t apply in the real world.

Most legal systems are based off the notion that the more direct control you have, the more responsibility you have. This is necessary in a free and equal society because it properly deters unethical and criminal acts. If you punished the thief as much as you punished the person whose goods were stolen, this would encourage stealing. Because the thief has more direct control over a theft than the victim, it makes sense to equate power with responsibility in a societal framework.

Although society may promote justice and equate power with responsibility, the universe doesn’t operate the same way. A hurricane can destroy your house even though you have no direct control over the weather. It doesn’t matter that the hurricane wasn’t your fault, you still have to live with the consequences. Systems of justice are a societal construct, not a core part of reality itself.

And what is that reality? That reality is that everything in our universe represents a consequence you have to live with. Raging wars, global warming and economic instability are all areas where you have relatively little power. But even though you may believe you are only one six billionth responsible for global warming, you have to live with 100% of the consequences.

Responsibility doesn’t mean control, responsibility means consequences. Because everything influences you directly or indirectly your responsibility is absolute, even if your power is limited.

Absolute Responsibility

This might seem quite the burden to bear, the entire universe. But realize that whether you agree to your responsibility you already have to accept the consequences. Whether you accept responsibility for global warming doesn’t lessen the consequences you face. Whether you accept responsibility for the way you were treated as a kid, your background or limitations doesn’t lessen your consequences.

Once you accept your responsibility to the universe something strange happens. Your power starts to grow. Instead of ignoring problems that aren’t your duty, you start looking at the bigger picture and you start to see solutions. Peter Parker had it backwards. Great responsibility creates great power.

Take a man like Nelson Mandella. Here is someone who spent years imprisoned, arguably with very little control over his universe and took responsibility for his world. This responsibility then led to him leading a nation and inspiring a world. Without first accepting responsibility, he would have had to suffer the consequences without hope.

Indirect Power

Does this mean everyone should try to become the president of the United States or start their own religion so they can control almost everything? Although these roles certainly offer a lot of power, direct leadership appears to have more power than it actually contains. Presidents are under enormous political pressures in democracies which limit their individual power, and religious figureheads frequently have their doctrines mangled and misinterpreted until the original ideas are blurred.

The greatest power is often indirect power. Who do you think would have a greater impact on the world. An ordinary president of the United States, or someone who invented a new energy source that didn’t release greenhouse gases? One may appear to have a lot of power, but power is ultimately just the ability to create change.

Power means results. So even if you aren’t famous, rich or a politician, you can still have a great deal of power. Ideas have a force of their own. Power doesn’t come from a protest sign or a political office, it comes from between your ears.

Take Your Responsibility

I wrote earlier what I believe it means to be an adult – taking responsibility for your life. Absolute responsibility is what it means to lead, what greatness means. Whether you choose to accept the responsibility or not it is still yours. You can try to deny it, but the consequences still remain.

The next time you walk down the street and see a homeless person, you can shrug and tell yourself he isn’t your responsibility. You can see people wander around with depression and pain and tell yourself they aren’t your responsibility. You can look around you and deny responsibility, but the consequences remain. It is your reality, accept your responsibility.