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Accepting Responsibility

You're sitting at a cafe in one of two armchairs; a coffee table separates you and the stranger in the adjoining seat. A few minutes pass and the stranger leaves, forgetting to take his empty cup from the table.

After some time, another stranger sits down. He's holding several books and a hot cup of coffee. The empty cup on the table is in his way, but with no knowledge of who the cup belongs to, he doesn't want to touch it; he probably assumes it's yours.

Whose responsibility is the empty cup?

It's easy to ignore responsibility when we can pass it off to someone else (especially if that person isn't around), but if we can alleviate suffering or provide assistance -- no matter how little -- we automatically inherit the responsibility to do so.

(This applies even if the suffering is directed at the same person who failed to be responsible: if we see a wallet or purse left behind, we feel responsibile to provide assistance by turning it in.)

The motivation to act comes easily when we witness suffering firsthand: the innate human elements of empathy and compassion allow us to sense when we are, without doubt, responsible to act.

But when things are a little less clear -- when our lack of responsibility can go unnoticed -- it's easy to conclude that "it's not my problem" and move on. This can happen even if we are able to solve the problem or be part of the solution.

We ignore dirty dishes in the sink, trash on the sidewalk, and the shy person at the party. We convince ourselves that we deserve to suffer, that we're incapable of changing, or that we're just not lucky. We push aside thoughts of poverty in India, inequality in Africa, or starvation the world over because “it’s too big; someone else will fix it; it’s not my problem.”

Except it is our problem, because we can do something to change it.

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  1. Very true Raam, and a tangible reminder. I must confess that I don’t always take up this responsibility. Especially when I’m tired, or busy, or cranky, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “well I didn’t cause this mess, so why should I clean it up?”

    You have a crystal clear way of expressing your concerns. Next time I feel like ignoring my responsibilities, I’ll think of that analogy with the empty cup at the coffee place. Thank you.

    • I think we all slip up and fail to take responsibility, Esther. The story I mentioned at the beginning of this post is what happened to me just before I decided to write this. Initially, I ignored the empty cup, quietly telling myself it’s not my problem. But upon further reflection, and after feeling disturbed that my inaction was causing someone else distress, I realized it was my problem. (I promptly moved the cup so he had room to put down the books.)

      One thing I’m going to do from now on is make a conscious effort to catch myself every time I think “it’s not my problem”, and to really make sure I’m not just ignoring responsibility because I’m able to offload it to someone who isn’t there.

  2. Whoa. I turned on my computer this morning, and THIS was in my inbox? Thank you, Raam. (Are you writing more as of late?) What a profound analogy, something to carry with me throughout my day.

  3. Funny isn’t it that we see this as a “problem”. The scenario could have just as easily been…”Oh someone forgot the cup, I’ll put it aside on the counter and go back to my thing”…end of story. No foul, no harm.

    We fuel our mental stories with negative thoughts and judgments so we feel a sense of superiority. We forget that at some point in our lives we have been that other person, maybe not by leaving a coffee cup somewhere but by not holding up our end of a responsibility.

    I get what you are saying about responsibility, and I think we are all accountable of what goes on in this environment we call our planet, Earth. That’s not to say we can always save everyone or fix everything but we can in the least put a positive foot forward through education, self-integrity, and energy put forth.

    Peace 🙂

    • Santoshi, it’s definitely the sense of superiority — a puffed up ego — that causes us to become judgmental and dismiss our responsibilities. Humility brings our mind home.

  4. Excellent words, Raam! Reinforces that, yes, ALL there is to know we each possess – truly “innate” as you say – it’s just a matter of waking-up to that knowledge as we move along our paths – you provide a “spark” to wakening for your readers – thanx for being the you that you are – as well, do you think that being disconnected from the amazing fast-paced American ratrace contributes to one’s ability to be able to get in touch with that innate essence?

    • Thank you for your support, Ricky.

      While removing ourselves from the rat race certainly allows us to more easily reconnect, even a peaceful, no electronics, no plans, no stress weekend camping trip in the forest can be an incredible way of reconnecting to nature and experiencing our true essence.

      Even in the busyness of New York City, one can be at peace and in touch with ones true self — it definitely takes more practice, but it’s certainly possible.

      More than anything, I feel it is the release from our own mental processes and mental worries that helps us reconnect — our environment can certainly make it easier, but it’s not a prerequisite.

  5. hi raam,
    i’m a “fixer” by nature and probably would have grinned really big and said “they’re gone. i’ll move this so you can put your books down.” maybe it has something to do with the maternal instinct or what? taking care of things? … but maybe some would say to that … why don’t you mind your own business! smile. i suppose there’s a fine line.

    one time, years ago, my brother and i were eating lunch in a hotel while travelling by car. a holiday inn, as i recall.
    a man in a suit sat at a table by himself by a window. on the floor beside him was a leather briefcase. not terribly noticeable. he was only having coffee.
    he left without picking it up. he paid his bill. we thought he might go back to get it. then he left the dining room. we sat there. waited. i asked michael if we should take it to the desk in case he came back later. about 15 minutes passed. i was about to tell the waitress.
    right at that moment, a different man in a suit, came to the table. ordered coffee to go. when he left, he reached down and picked up the case as if it were his own.
    i think we witnessed some kind of exchange. drugs? money? spy papers? you could speculate on and on!
    i wondered then, what if i had messed up the switch? lol.
    and even after that…. i’m still prone to “move the cup.”
    oh lordy! she’s written another bad book!!! sorry.
    but do love your posts. and yes, we can each do something!
    hugs,
    tammy j

    • Thank you for sharing that story, Tammy! Who knows what you witnessed… maybe you could turn that into a short book! 🙂

      You’re right about there being a fine line between “fixing” stuff and minding our own business, but I think if we’re genuinely helpful we can’t go wrong! 🙂

  6. You seem like a modern day messiah. Humanitarism is something in your genetic makeup. Little steps focused towards a better world display the cure for suffering. Driving by the motorist stranded on the highway is so much easier than stopping to help, but what happens when the mishap becomes your own? As thinking, feeling beings, not animals, we have a responsibility towards the greater good of an improved world. You, Raam, address this. I was originally turned on on to your site for your take on minimalism and its advantages, but the additional insight on different topics provided has developed my growth on my outlook of the world. We can change problems and greater degrees of them if we only pay attention and care.

    • With the ability technology has given us to share our thoughts and messages with almost anyone, we’re all modern day messiah’s. 🙂

      I think you touched on an important observation, Ward, with regards to the stranded motorist: If we all felt a strongly about karma, we’d all be more willing to go out of our way to help people. Instead, we feel egotistical and superior, choosing instead to let others suffer because we feel that we shouldn’t be bothered by their problems.

      If we all lived with a sense of connection, a sense of family relation to everyone else, then we would have much less pain and suffering in the world (sure, like in any family there will be a few people who are genuinely nasty, but for the most part even total strangers will be grateful for our help).

  7. i agree totally with ward. there is something about you raam.
    especially for being as young as you are. it is refreshing and heartening that there is someone who can word the deepest meanings and insights so simply and almost poetically. jesus also did that. as did the buddah. and lao tzu. and my favorite modern times monk, thich nhat hanh. you are fast joining his company!
    we are grateful. and so happy that you are who you are!
    i think, no … i know you have remarkable parents too.

    • Thank you, Tammy. As you mentioned, I absolutely have incredible parents and I couldn’t have done anything without them.

      We all have the potential within us to become “great” (I dislike using that word in reference to human beings, as it creates a sense of inequality). We just need to search inside for the truth instead of searching outside — instead of trying to find someone else who has more than we do, we need to realize we have all the answers within ourselves. Others can provide direction from their own insights and experiences, but the path is still within us. 🙂

  8. Great writeup. Your idea is both profound but also so simple. I can easily turn in a stranger’s wallet, but not discard a stranger’s cup because it’s “gross” somehow but a wallet isn’t right?

    In some clear way, both the wallet holder and the person encountering the empty cup suffer in a similar way.

    • Indeed they do, Mayur. Amazingly enough, the scenario with the cup happened to me while at a coffee shop and I had this insight. Then a few minutes later I noticed someone at a different table left behind their bag. I walked over, picked it up, and gave it to the cashier. That’s when it hit me how related the two are! 🙂

      • Haha.. It’s sad that your cup and bag experience probably happens 100 times a day around the planet to other people and yet it doesn’t enlighten them because they aren’t looking for the lesson you share above.

        Unfortunately, “The Universe” finds it necessary to construct tragedies on a massive scale like falling buildings and dieing innocent people to help us all wake up out of our desensitized over-technologized lives and learn the lesson of the cup and bag. Even then, the lesson goes to ill use most of the time as we just end up taking it only into our own tiny, selfish and individual lives and not put it out there for the greater good.

        Thankfully you are here, keenly observing, deciphering, computing, making sense of, and then sharing the minutae of life that is to be seen by all if they look carefully and with a clear mind.

        I will never see the empty cup the same way again

        Thanks

        • Thank you, Mayur. I don’t think I will ever see an empty cup the same way again either. 🙂

          I don’t think our lives are “over-technologized”; I think it’s more that we have lost focus… that we’re too individually focused and too shortsighted, that we’re distracted from all those miniature lessons that nature puts in front of us every day, those little bits of magic all around that we fail to see because we’re too busy feeling important and egotistical.

          Sharing those little wonders that we notice — the lessons and the magic happening all around us — allows us to help others see and learn them as well. And what better medium to share such things than that of the Internet? 🙂

          • One of my cousins said it best: “If you see the light, it’s your duty to take others there.”

            I guess you see the light, understand it, and know how to pronounce it’s name. Not only that, you provide a nice easy map for us all as we are often blinded by the intensity of the darkness.

            Keep it up.

  9. The cup is definitely our problem… [and] our responsibility. It surprises me how surprised people are when you help them. By doing what seems obvious to me… I have found a most gratifying way to live my life. Thanks Raam for writing this post. I love what you are doing here… 🙂

  10. We all have to take responsibility. Even if it’s something as simple as CUP. What we Do and what we DONT do effect us and the world around us. It’s up to us to be the CHANGE if we want things to CHANGE!

  11. Hmm, true and well said. The last bit sings out the most though- we can do something to change it. As an individual, one can pick up the mug regardless of who put it there, or collect the empty cup that litters the beautiful grass, or seek to give of ourselves and of our things rather than keep them all to ourselves where they only collect dust … mmm …

    I just ventured here today … but I have a feeling I will do so often … Cheers!

    • Giving of ourselves freely, without fear of scarcity, is incredibly empowering!

      I’m so happy you’re here, Allie! Thank you for reading and commenting. 🙂

  12. Thank you so much for your post! My house is a mess and I’m having difficulty just “washing the dirty dishes in the sink”…
    I feel very motivated right now. 😀

    Just a point to offer though about people starving, etc…
    Just having awareness of these situations does not mean we have responsibility. There is way too many “big things” that need to be fixed. Yes it only takes small things to help, but Everyone doesn’t need to do everything, and people go through phases were you can’t focus on things outside your own life immediate family and friends, etc…
    I do like the idea though of just taking responsibility for what is in front of you! If I did something about every big thing out there that I thought about or heard about, etc… I’d be very overwhelmed and depressed(well I actually do take on too much responsibility for others well being and get depressed when I can’t help out with everything that goes wrong!!!) I wish I could but I can’t so I try to focus on what’s in front of me and realize that the big things are everyone’s responsibility, not just mine, and that I’ll do my part as I can. 😀 I have to keep reminding myself that I’m only one person and that I have my own unique part to play and not worry about what “isn’t” my responsibility even if technically I have the capacity to help, logistically it just doesn’t make sense. 😀

    • Aria, you bring up an important point: Logistically, many things — although possible — simply don’t make sense. We need to focus on living our own life to the best of our ability — living within each moment — while simultaneously keeping an eye on the future and on how our actions will translate into long-term changes, whether positive or negative.

      That said, if we feel the bigger issues are not our responsibility, we risk never being able to see how our actions, no matter how small, can actually contribute to tackling those bigger issues.

  13. And I feel more motivated to help others at the store ect… even though I am overwhelmed and am struggling to take care of myself! 😀

  14. My take on all “cup left behind” type issues…

    In each moment, if there is something I can do about it, some action I can take, large or small. I just do it, whether someone sees me doing it, whether it is my “responsibility” or not, whether the situation has anything to do with me or not.

    In the end, if you are in a certain place at a certain time presented with a certain situation, you lose nothing by applying yourself and addressing the situation at hand, in the capacity that you can.

    • You’re right, Stephanie. If we’re looking for recognition and wanting others to see our good deeds, then we’re doing them selfishly and egotistically instead of doing them to be responsible or because it’s just the right thing to do.

      I love your “just do it” mindset: There should be no hesitation, no searching for excuses or value to be gained. Just doing it because it’s what should be done needs to be enough.

  15. Great thoughts in your post. It is everyone’s responsibility to help out whenever they can. We can get so caught up in our own lives that we sometimes we forget about what is around us. Good reminder!

    • Thank you, Cathy. I think that it’s a difference between feeling connected to the world around us and feeling disconnected, living within our own bubble. If we feel connected, then there is no hesitation to help others, as helping others helps ourselves (because we’re all connected). 🙂

  16. Raam,
    I have heard many times the words ‘talk is cheap’ and ‘action speaks louder than words’. I agree when the opportunity presents itself it is an act of love to help out whether it is choosing to pick up a piece of garbage or helping someone with their groceries.
    Sure, I can always make an excuse too [fill in the blank] but I focus on moving beyond excuses by doing my best to set an example to myself.

    Yesterday, I was swimming in the sea and it took me five attempts to go deep enough in the water to pick up a plastic bottle that I could see was on the sea bed but I got it and put it in the garbage can on the beach. I felt good.

    Bit by bit we all make a difference.

    All the best to everyone,
    David

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