From Darkness to Light Day 8 by Eugene Palmer

The Responsibility Gene

by Eugene Palmer


My dad wrote the story of his life about 20 years ago. It told the story of a normal life. Nothing spectacular. Nothing horrible. He just lived his life moving forward. Joining the military, getting married, having kids and grandkids. He lived the “American dream” quietly and responsibly. He actually did everything quietly. My dad was and remains the shadow man to me. He was always there but, for the most part, he was in the shadows of my memories of my childhood. While still alive, he remains in the shadows.

As I pondered Sreejit’s call for contributions, I realized that I am much the same as my father, with a minor difference. I am not as quiet as my father. Although I am becoming more silent as I get older. I imagine the best world for me would be to live as a hermit in the woods. Away from everyone and everything. But I engage much more with the people around me and with the world around me than my father has ever done. At least in my memories of him.

No, the way in which I am like him, in which I have followed his example, is living a responsible life. One in which I just keep moving forward. Checking the boxes. College to a job to law school to marriage to a career to kids to a house with a swimming pool. To responsibility. It is the way I was raised and the way I was taught to live my life. Responsibly. Be a cog in the machine. Keep things moving forward.

This is actually the soul-wrenching experience, the trauma of my life that has led me to where I am now, to be who I am.

I have a job now, and have had it for almost 15 years, in which I am in a position of significant responsibility. I am in an executive position of a state agency with about 450 employees and dozens of programs. Because of my position, I am one of the handful of people who is responsible for all of it. For personnel disputes, program malfunctions, legal battles. All of it.

And the job is not who I am. On a daily basis, my work forces me into situations that are not intrinsically or emotionally right for me. There is no reward in much of what I do. There is no fulfillment. Instead, I am constantly pulled out of who I am, my comfort zone, and forced to engage with people and on issues that simply do not motivate me. Instead, they sap my energy, they suck just a little more at my soul.

But I have that responsibility gene, passed down to me by my father. This is the job that pays the bills, supports me, supports my family. Provides for us the things we need and many of the things we want. And it’s my responsibility to do my job the best I can. Every damn day.

I go to work in a skin that isn’t mine and it’s itching more and more. I desperately need to slough that skin off and be seen in my own skin. To be me.

And then there is this.

That marriage. It was good for a while. Then the kids came along and as the years rolled by, I have had to deal with a fundamental divide. My wife and I are two completely different people. What motivates her is almost always the complete opposite of what motivates me. What she does with her free time is comparable to fingernails on the chalkboard for me. And what I do with my free time is nothing that she would ever choose to do.

We joke occasionally that if we agree on something than we must both be wrong because nothing makes sense if we agree.

As a result, my marriage is not fulfilling either. It doesn’t fill my emotional tank. My wife is a wonderful, decent, kind person who lets me do my thing for the most part. But the two of us together is a thing that just doesn’t work. My happiest time in my marriage is when I am alone.

But there’s that thing. Responsibility. When I chose to get married, I also chose to take on the responsibility of my wife and then our kids. It is a responsibility I cannot shirk, that I cannot discard. I don’t know how to do that. Oh sure, I know the mechanics of how it could be done, but I simply don’t know how I could actually do it.

So, that is what I do. I put my false skin on and go to work and perform the act of responsibility throughout the day to do my job well. By the end of the day I am exhausted from the toll this takes on me.

And when I come home, I perform the act of responsibility to continue taking care of my family the best way I know how.

Responsibility. It may not be a death in the family, a life-threatening illness, or the loss of a job. But it can be a trauma nonetheless.

Where has this led me? To the place I am now. I live for the day when I can retire from this job. That could happen as early as the end of 2019. I look forward to the day when I can shed that skin and spend my day being the me that I want to be. I have so many plans – to write, to paint, to hike, to run, to bake, to learn an instrument, to sit at a bar and have a beer, to just be. Quiet and silent and living in the world and figuring things out. Filling my tank with the experiences and things that matter to me.

There’s another aspect to this though. In the last year or two, I have become an unofficial, unpaid life coach. If there is one thing I might be able to do now it is to use my experiences to help others avoid the responsibility trap. I believe there are times when we each can make decisions to pursue our dreams. Maybe those dreams just involve a short foray into freedom and exploration. Maybe they allow for a life-altering course that achieves the apparently dueling values of responsibility and imagination. Regardless of which, I want the people I come across who are facing path of life decisions to consider the possibilities of what could be.

I have regular get-togethers with two different friends I’ve known for more than 35 years. I call them pep talks. The point for me is to help them define and see a world where they can retire sooner than later and pursue their dreams while they are still young enough and healthy enough to do so. It’s also my dream after all.

I recently started talking with an acquaintance who is 63 years old. He has worked for years in a high pressure job that pays very well, but which he no longer finds very fulfilling. I asked him whether he is considering retirement. He hasn’t really, so I asked him why not. Our conversations for the last couple of months have now been about his dreams, what he would do, could do if he were to retire. Each time we discuss these things, I give him “homework” to do for our next conversation. This week’s assignment – identify a time in the next month or two when he can take some time off of work and go to a place he enjoys, where he can clear his mind of those work things, and consider the possibilities of his future.

But, it’s not just the “old.” A young woman I’ve known for the past four years is facing career and education decisions. I meet regularly with her for updates and to encourage her to find a moment in the midst of her job and applying to grad schools where she can be free at least for a few months. To quit work a few months before school starts and travel wherever her heart takes her. And to have a plan for her future where these things always remain a possibility.

There are others. A young man who I used to coach in soccer, dating back to when he was seven or eight, who I am trying to set up a time to discuss his life with. He regularly tweets statements of frustration. I want to dig in a little bit and see if I can guide him to a happier place. A place where the burdens of growing up are not all-consuming.

On a wall in my office I have a banner that contains a quote from Henry James. “It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined.” Out of the darkness of a life lived all too responsibly, is the light of the life I’ve imagined. It awaits me just around the corner. And while I take those final few steps, I can’t help but take the lessons I’ve learned and the decisions I’ve made and encourage others to find a quicker path to that light than I managed. Or to recognize that they have a right to that life as soon as they possibly can manage it.




Eugene Palmer found a gift for fiction later in life. It became a means for him to write about love and loss. To find an avenue to express things he couldn’t express in real life. This piece sheds a little light on why his fiction is an outlet.

When he isn’t writing or working, Eugene spends time in the world. By the ocean, in the mountains, walking along rivers. Taking pictures. Experiencing peace and quiet in places where his only responsibility is to himself.



Written for the From Darkness to Light event.  If you’d like to be a part of the challenge, find more information Here.   But first, leave a comment and let Eugene know what you think about his words.



About the author

I am a King without a Kingdom, in a world with many masters, wrapped in the spoils of a jealous heart, and my people’s callous laughter.


  1. Eugene! Wow. You are putting into words what most people keep bottled up inside forever. Thank you for your openness and honesty. The father part, as I mentioned before, I can really relate to, in the sense that I modeled myself after the version of my dad that he was when I first was learning about what it means to be a man. And I was there in that version with myself for years as my dad continued to grow and change and only much later decided to allow myself to slowly grow and change. Of course all of the versions were good, but allowing ourselves to be in the flow of change and possibility takes some getting used to. Good luck on your final few steps in turning that corner and creating the life that you’ve imagined for yourself.

  2. Eugene, thank you for your vulnerability! I can see some of my former life in what you write, when I was married to an attorney and life was all about his job. Somehow we lost a lot of our connection too, and then the unthinkable happened…he died. I have recreated my life and have tired to do it with far more awareness. I wish you all the best in your pursuit of more fulfillment. It’s frightening to take that leap, but we only have this one life! 🙏 Namaste

  3. I really appreciate how honestly you shared your experience and how well you write. I’m so glad you have already identified the things you want to do when you retire. I’m wondering if you would accept a challenge from me- This week’s assignment should you choose to accept it– identify a time this week when you can write, paint, hike, run, bake, or sit at a bar and have a beer, or to just be- and then do it. It wouldn’t matter how long you did one of those things; taking at least a sliver of time for yourself would be all that matters.

    1. Karuna,

      Thank you for your words and your challenge. I actually do quite a bit of those things already. They are how I fill my soul in the spare moments of my weeks. A couple of months ago I started music lessons, for example. Last night I had a beer and then met a friend at a baseball game. So, I do make an effort to fill in the gaps with those things that define who I am. I just need more of it. 😉


      1. I’m so glad to hear that. I can relate to what you shared. I am now retired. I am still busy but most of my time is spent doing the things that had already become my passions. Like you, I already knew what many of those things would be. I loved my work, but it was time for me to move on… and I was ready.

  4. Eugene, from your bio at the end, it sounds like you’ve finally managed to get off the merry-go-round and are being kind to yourself. Way to go! You’ve given us a lot to ponder in this thoughtful and honest piece.

  5. I connect with you from the perspective of your career. A little over two years ago, I left a 35+years career. That last year I worked, I felt more and more like someone I did not know. I had a tremendous amount of responsibility, traveled a lot and yes, the money was fantastic. But… and nothing matters after but, right? A few weeks after I left my job, I started my blog, and I have been writing since. I always wrote, but never to share except with those close to me. I took a leap of faith and I could not be happier. Life is short; find your happiness because if you aren’t happy then no one else around you is either. Thank you for sharing your story here.

  6. I am so overwhelmed by the raw honesty and emotion in this post. I can’t say that I completely relate but yes I do understand how responsibility can tear you to pieces .. how it can take every single drop of strength, time, devotion until we just can’t take it. When it comes to relationships .. from my young and humble perspective .. sometimes people just grow up to become different people .. that doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t love them .. we just don’t connect on the same level as we wish we would. I am glad that you are taking those final few steps in turning that corner and creating the life that you’ve imagined for yourself. ❤️ I wish you a world of happiness 🙂

  7. I can relate to this. I have tried working in a few different industries even pursuing the next level of education in hopes that it would assist me in gaining the confidence to find a better job. It did but, just like the other jobs there’s always that sense of “why am I here or, what difference am I making in this world?” My father knew his daughter would have the same troubles in life he did. “Keep going, be that steady rock, get that paycheck, the house, the family and the car!” Through it all, I can still hear a little girl with a lisp telling everyone and anyone who will listen, “I want to be an artist when I grow up!” Every Sunday I quickly throw away my coat of responsibility disappearing into my blog. For now, it is that alternate universe where that little girl did become an artist. Just like you I am working towards doing what I really want to do. Thank you for every word and for speaking your truth. 😁

    1. You describe my search for something to motivate me and inspire me. Baking. Gardening. Writing. Learning an instrument. Work has been a different story. Years of doing the same thing because it is what it is — what I do that pays the bills.

      In my spare time I spend time “disappearing” as you say. Into cycling and running and taking pictures and all of those other things that are really about who I am.

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