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.