Yes, we did make a mess. Taking responsibility has nothing (and everything) to do with the personal

(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t watched The Good Place, and want to, don’t read this post!)

There’s a moment in television series called The Good Place – available in South Africa on Netflix – where Michael (a demon cunningly disguised as Ted Danson) realises why it is that so few people make it into heaven, the good place of the title.

It’s because being a good person is incredibly complicated. No matter what you do, there are unintended consequences. Even when you buy a tomato.

He explains it here to Judge Gen, the all-knowing judge found in the Neutral Zone between the Bad Place and the Good Place (watch from 1:30 if you are short on time):

What he is talking about is responsibility – the way in which we are accountable for our actions. In the universe of The Good Place, if buying a tomato means you have unwittingly supported the use of toxic pesticides, that counts against you personally in the quest for a pleasant afterlife.

The Good Place is just a TV series, and it may be that our tomato purchases are not actually a criteria for making it into paradise. But thinking about the issue of responsibility and how it intersects with the world we live in is worth doing.

What is responsibility?

Three definitions from the Oxford Dictionary sum it up:

  • The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone:
  • The state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something
  • A moral obligation to behave correctly towards or in respect of (something)

I’ve been thinking about the issue of responsibility on and off for years, perhaps because I often find myself taking responsibility for things. If and when I get a tattoo, it will be the words “There’s me”, taken from this passage in a Terry Pratchett novel (I have quoted this before, here, in which young witch Tiffany Aching is facing the end of the world in the absence of her mentor, Miss Tick):

“You’d better tell me what you know, toad,” said Tiffany. “Miss Tick isn’t here. I am.”

“Another world is colliding with this one,” said the toad. “There. Happy now? That’s what Miss Tick thinks. But it’s happening faster than she expected. All the monsters are coming back.”


“There’s no one to stop them.”

There was silence for a moment.

“There’s me,” said Tiffany.

Because I see the world through this prism, I’m not necessarily the most popular person at a dinner party – I tend to go on about things, and be bossy. But I will be the one who always helps clear the table and makes sure the last drunken guest takes an Uber.

From clearing the table to saving the world

I recently asked this question on a LinkedIn post about an article I wrote about the mess the world is in:

What one thing could old people do to fix the mess we made of the world?

To which one person replied: “No, we did not mess up the world.”

My response: We didn’t personally mess up the world. But collectively, it happened on our watch.

What does that mean?

To me, it means that a key part of being a human is understanding that our personal lives are not separate from bigger systems, which are built around us, as we live our lives, by people who are just like us. And they are often people who we ourselves voted into power.

What to do?

The first step is a mental shift – a way of looking at the world in which we do not simply say “that’s someone else’s problem” (SEP), as described in Douglas Adams’s novel Life, The Universe and Everything:

An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot.

By saying that big issues like climate change or political polarisation or poor leadership are “out there”, not part of our small personal lives, we diminish ourselves. We give ourselves permission to make them someone else’s problem.

Think again of Ted Danson’s tomato. You can solve some of the problem by growing your own (if you have the means). You could research the chains of production that brought that tomato to your local supermarket. You might pressure that supermarket to change its suppliers. Or you can elect leaders who care about agriculture and climate change and good stewardship of the land (which means you are going to have to do some work, researching the candidates and their parties).

What you should not do is just eat the tomato, and say you have no responsibility for the way it was produced. Particularly if you are at a dinner party with me.

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Main picture: Avin CP, Unsplash

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