I am irresponsible. As I write this, I’m watching Pride & Prejudice with my family instead of, well, writing this piece with the full attention a piece of writing deserves. I’m watching the five-hour-long one, too—the one with wet, clinging-clothes Colin Firth staring his way broodingly through every other scene, so I really know I won’t get much done.
I’m watching it anyway. Irresponsibly. Irreconcilably. Irrationally.
This admission—that I am irresponsible—won’t come as a shock to the many friends who have waited for a text that never came; or to the relatives who have never received thank you cards, some of which still lie half-written on my bedside table; or to the library employees across the greater Grand Rapids area who have kindly hidden their judgment while reading out how much I owe in library fines; or to the dishes I haven’t done, the friendships left adrift and unattended to, the plants I’ve killed, the job applications begun and never finished, the emails—oh dear god, the emails.
I have flouted obligation, skirted duty, and ignored propriety.
I have left things undone.
This is half confession, half celebration. “I’ve gotten away with it this far”—is that what I’m celebrating? No, it’s not. My irresponsibility has cost me plenty. I’m not immune, but neither do I learn from my mistakes. I won’t be scared into taking up any mantles any time soon.
I think that sometimes I just want people to know that I am not a responsible person, just because I’m the kind of person who everyone assumes is responsible, and sometimes I just want to bring a sledgehammer down on that image of myself.
I have not filled out forms I was supposed to fill out, nor have I contacted people I was meant to contact. I have wasted opportunities.
I have not answered long, thoughtful letters from friends who love me, even when they’ve paid international postage to send them my way from across the world.
I have not done my due diligence.
Many people (who are not as irresponsible as I am) equate irresponsibility with carelessness. They think irresponsible people simply don’t care enough. We don’t pay attention to detail, we don’t take into account how others feel. We are self-absorbed and lazy, and we just can’t be bothered. We’re entitled m***enials to whom duty is a foreign concept.
Ok, admittedly, I’ve been careless, too. I’ve neglected to check which airport I fly out of London from and taken the wrong bus to the wrong airport: a $300 mistake. But in general, it’s the contrary: irresponsible people like me—we care too much.
Joan Didion describes it as a cycle of anxiety in “On Self-Respect,” a gem of an essay whose sharpness of prose many re-readings has not dulled; I never fail to feel physically pierced by Didion’s words in this piece.
She describes how low self-esteem and fear of failure depletes the irresponsible person’s ability to follow through with everyday tasks, until “every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the spectre of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that one’s sanity becomes an object of speculation among one’s acquaintances.” She calls this irresponsibility part of an alienation from the self.
It won’t surprise anyone with some background in philosophy to hear that while I’ve been reckoning with personal irresponsibility, I’ve been reading about existentialism, interspersed here and there with good old Augustine, who Hannah Arendt called “the first philosopher of the will.”
(I’m trying to understand my faults and propensities, and always, always trying to draw out a world that makes some sense, a world I fit into somehow.)
Augustine confessed his irresponsibility too, chalking it up to the perversity of the will, rebellious and tainted by the fall. If Didion’s will has anxiety, Augustine’s has a will of its own. Both Didion and Augustine agreed, however, that the will can be self-sabotaging.
(Destructive Thought #8098497: Maybe if I’m neglectful enough, people will realize I don’t deserve their friendship and will leave, like they should have long ago.)
I’m not about to defend irresponsibility. Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist ethical theory has influenced me deeply and, I think, successfully impressed upon me the unbearable weight of responsibility that threatens to crush us every day, given our radical freedom.
Maybe it’s that weight that I’m trying to get off my chest with these confessions. I know it won’t succeed; the weight will be there tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, when I leave yet more obligations unfulfilled.
I write this as people around me seem full of hope and optimism, blinded temporarily by the change in our anno domini into believing, briefly, in new beginnings: thinking that on the other side of 2017 things will be different.
I write this, now, as I hide in one of the host’s rooms at a New Year’s Eve party, fleeing from yet another obligation, that of making conversation with acquaintances and strangers. Tonight, “every encounter demands too much,” and I can’t bring myself to stay at this party, so I will let the final moments of 2017 wash past me as I lie alone, in my own bed, shirking another responsibility. I don’t demand anything of myself for once.
But I will make more demands tomorrow, and I will fail, and fail, and fail again. Often I know that I won’t try, because my will, although not actively corrupt (yet), has performance anxiety, and has it bad. My will knows tomorrow won’t be better. In 2018 I’ll still be irresponsible, actively neglectful of things and people that I care deeply about. Irrationally, indefensibly irresponsible.