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With Great Rights Come Great Responsibilities

I’ve been seeing a lot of news stories and social media posts in the past few days about the importance of asserting and preserving our ‘rights’… Our right to freedom of speech, our right to the freedom to bear arms, our right to bodily autonomy. People are up-in-arms (often literally) to defend their ‘rights’…whatever they believe they are. But what about the responsibilities that go hand in hand with those rights? When I was growing up, my mother taught me that “with great rights come great responsibilities” and that until I showed that I was able to act responsibly, I wasn’t ready to have the ‘right’. It’s the same thing that I taught my children.

When my kids were little, they often made mistakes. Once, my son went to a sleepover party for his best friend Nate’s birthday. While horsing around with the other eight and nine-year old boys, he broke a lamp sitting on a side table in the living room of the host’s house. I let him know that he would have to use his own money to buy a replacement lamp for the birthday boy’s mother. “But mom”, he said, “It wasn’t my fault. We were just fooling around, and it was an accident. Why should I have to pay?”

“Because, whether it was an accident or not, whether you intended to break the lamp or not, you did. And since you did, you are responsible for getting Nate’s mom a new lamp.” I helped my son count out the money, drove him to the store, helped him pick out a new lamp and took him, the lamp, and his handwritten note of apology over to Nate’s house the next day. Nate’s mom was surprised. “I know it was an accident”, she said. “I appreciate the new lamp, and you teaching your son the importance of responsibility. It’s a great lesson for my son too.”

Why did I make my son pay for the lamp? Even when the whole thing was an accident? Because I knew then (and still know now), that how I acted and reacted was the model my children, and others around them, would have. That in order for them to learn that rights and responsibilities were tied together, I was going to have to model that…in words and in actions.

The United States is not the country I was born in. It’s my chosen country. I immigrated here from Canada thirty years ago. As I look around me at the changes that have occurred in my chosen country over those year, I’m devastated.

I see what the focus on rights…on “my rights”…on me getting to do exactly what I want, without an equal emphasis on being responsible for how my actions affect others, has done. It’s made us self-centered and selfish. It’s made us closed-hearted. It’s divided us. And it’s creating a vicious circle of fear, because our children learn what we teach them. And then they grow up to teach others what they’ve learned.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. We are human beings and we have the conscious ability to change. To teach our children differently. To respond to others at work, at home, and in the community differently. To reaffirm that with great rights, come equally great responsibilities. The responsibility to consider how our actions and words affect others. The responsibility to bring people together instead of divide them. The responsibility to create environments and communities in which people trust each other instead of living in fear of each other. The responsibility to make sure that everyone has enough to eat, a safe and warm place to live and the possibility for a life that is better than what their parents had.

The future is in our hands…in your hands…what will you do to reconnect the idea that without great responsibility, it’s impossible to have great rights?

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