Silent heroism

Alisa Resnik never had much confidence in herself. Perhaps it was the way her family criticized her as a child, or maybe it was the general negativity of communist Russia when she was growing up in St. Petersburg in the 1980s. Whatever the reason, she often thought she was unworthy, and the idea of doing something for her own benefit felt almost reprehensible. So whether it was a question of faulty heating in her apartment or errors on her university transcript, she never stood up for herself; she never complained.
Then about four years ago, while living in Berlin, Resnik starting taking photographs. The camera became a way of communicating, and she took portraits of friends or strangers she met in bars after her shifts as a waitress. She showed the pictures to a few people, and one of them showed a gallery owner. An exhibition was organized, and something really crazy happened: Resnik won the prestigious European Publisher’s Award for the best emerging photographer in Europe. Suddenly, people wanted to discuss her photographs, and some even wanted to label her subjects “freaks.” For a screening of her work at the prestigious Recontres d’Arles photography festival, a curator chose a creepy David Lynch song, “Crazy Clown Time,” as the background music. And that’s when Resnik, against all odds, said no.
“I told them if they played that music, I would take my photographs and go,” she says. “The people I photograph trust me. I’m in a certain power position when I shoot; I decide how to represent them. I have a responsibility to them, and I have to act on it.”
What astonished Resnik was that it worked. The music was changed, and the screening was a success. This small moment, in which she took responsibility for her subjects, triggered something inside her. “I thought, I can do this,” she says. “I am able to stand for myself.”
This is the magical thing about responsibility. We live in a society that tends to portray responsibility in a negative context, as an obligation that restricts personal choice. It’s a burden associated with work or family or school, something to be avoided so we can chase adventures and pursue dreams. Yet responsibility can be an enormous blessing. By breaking the word into its component parts—“response” and “ability”—we can more easily see that it is both a talent and a strength. Yes, lifeguards have a weighty responsibility in the face of a flailing swimmer, but they also have the wondrous ability to respond and the training and confidence to save a life.
What’s more, responsibility creates profound connections between people. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas described this sort of response ability as the essence of humanity. In his words, a person who is able to respond to another person is propelled into a hallowed state “beyond freedom and non-freedom” and achieves the “unity of the human genre.”
This is why it was no coincidence that Resnik felt such empowerment when she took responsibility for her subjects. Both tangible and spiritual benefits arise from taking responsibility and realizing that even in the darkest moments, you still have the capacity to manage your ability to respond. This is why the philosophy of response ability has been embraced by everybody from youth workers to disaster experts and may eventually lead to the evolution of culture as a whole.
A few years ago, Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, psychologists at the Max Planck Institutes in Germany, ran a series of intriguing experiments. They wanted to know when the instinct to help others emerged, so they gathered a group of 14- to 18-month-old children and put them in situations in which an adult was struggling to complete a task. A child was placed in front of someone who dropped a clothespin while hanging laundry or struggled to open a door because they had an armload of magazines. Amazingly, the children inevitably tried to help. They would walk over and pick up the clothespin or push open the door. The results were the same in eight other scenarios. The psychologists concluded that people are born naturally helpful. “Children display spontaneous, unrewarded helping behaviors when another person is unable to achieve his goal,” wrote Warneken and Tomasello.
In short, children naturally exhibit a high level of response ability. So the question becomes: What happens to this instinct once people get older?
Heroism2
Sadly, it seems to become suppressed. The psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” to describe how people can be conditioned to accept that they are incapable of changing their situation. In the 1960s, he ran a series of tests to see how dogs responded to electric shocks. In an initial experiment, dogs were chained and given shocks. Then the chains were removed, and only a low fence kept the dogs from escaping. Nonetheless, the dogs had been conditioned to believe they were helpless and didn’t try to jump the fence. In another experiment, one set of dogs could stop an electric shock by pressing a lever and another set had no control over the shocks. Afterward, dogs in the first group exhibited normal behavior and showed healthy attempts to avoid further duress. But dogs in the second group passively accepted more punishment. Seligman concluded that helplessness could be inflicted on animals and that people were equally vulnerable. In fact, Seligman, one of the pioneers of positive psychology, argued that many forms of depression are related to people’s induced beliefs that they are powerless.
Of course, people aren’t regularly electrocuted in our society, but our increasing dependence on complex technology does teach us we are unable to respond to situations outside our narrow fields of expertise. The days when a weekend mechanic could tinker on a car engine are gone; anything beyond adding wiper fluid is generally the domain of professionals. Even motivated individuals willing to tackle complex problems find corporations more resistant to such independence. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak believed a computer should be accessible, and early models included a hood so users could fiddle with components; today, Apple busies itself inventing asymmetrical screws so people can’t even open their machines. This corporate age has rendered positive notions of responsibility hollow, thanks to businesses more concerned with image than social obligations that bombard us with public relations messages about “corporate responsibility.”
Ivan Illich was one of the first people to warn against ceding responsibilities to third parties. His 1976 book, The Limits of Medicine, argued that with the advent of big medicine and corporate hospitals, people began to abdicate control of their health and ignore the health of their neighbors. If somebody screams for help, it is natural to step in; however, with highly specialized emergency response systems, we shut down this instinct and leave the matter to the professionals. As Illich wrote, “The siren of one ambulance can destroy Samaritan attitudes in a whole Chilean town.”
Part of the reason society so readily surrenders response ability to organizations is the belief that organizations are better at responding. Yet incidents like FEMA’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina illustrate how institutional thinking can suffocate the ability to respond.
Lucy Easthope is an expert on mass fatality disasters at the University of Lincoln in England. She has worked on site at catastrophes such as the Christchurch earthquake and the Bali bombing. But as horrifying as being on the front line can be, the hardest part of her job often occurs between disasters when she lobbies politicians and bureaucrats to invest in response ability. “Once the cameras are gone and the newspapers move on, there can be a sort of failure of organizational memory,” Easthope says. “It’s hard to convince governments to spend the money, so the question you face is, How far do you go? How much trouble are you willing to get into to remind them that they could fail people twice?”
Take the Hurricane Katrina disaster. There were valuable lessons about providing hospitals with independent energy sources and water supplies. However, as noted by Sheri Fink, author of Five Days at Memorial, none were applied in New York area hospitals, and the same problems arose when Hurricane Sandy struck. It’s easy to get a government to spend $100 million when CNN is broadcasting live from the disaster zone, but as Easthope says, it’s tremendously difficult to get them to spend a small fraction of that to prepare for theoretical catastrophes.
Heroism3
“It is a matter of quiet heroism,” she says. “You have to spend the time and money and energy to ensure your organization has response ability, and if you are successful there are no cameras or spotlights because the problems either don’t occur or they are minimal.”
Easthope’s quiet heroism is an essential facet of this sort of response ability. It’s the nobility of being prepared, of having the first aid kit in the car or the storm lanterns in the garage, foresight that is often fueled by the desire to help both family and strangers.
Of course, when it comes to response ability, institutions are not unique in letting their focus lapse. A survey by the American Red Cross revealed that only a fraction of people who take initial CPR training ever come back for the recommended sessions to renew their skills. Fostering true response ability requires an enduring dedication that can be a challenge for even the most conscientious among us.
When Alan Berkowitz led a drive to get male students involved in issues of date rape and sexual harassment, he ran into a perplexing problem. The more the psychologist talked with young men, the more he heard they felt isolated because they thought aggressive sexual behavior was the norm. Berkowitz became convinced students were operating under dangerous social misconceptions. To confirm this, he ran a survey at Western Washington University. A group of 618 undergraduate students was asked to rate the importance of getting consent for sex or intervening when a woman was being harassed. Then they were asked to guess how their peers would rate the same issues. Across the board, students showed great concern themselves, but vastly underestimated the concern shown by their fellow students.
“Many of these kids were worried about doing something, about being a ‘cock-blocker’ or ruining somebody’s game,” Berkowitz says. “But when they know people will respect them for intervening, they are more likely to respond in a positive way.”
This realization became the foundation for Berkowitz’s workshops on response ability. It’s all about teaching people to trust their instincts and respond in ways that won’t inflame the situation, he believes. Healthy response ability is like a muscle that can be strengthened over time, and it’s an exercise that helps both the community and the individual.
“Responding obviously can help other people, but it is also very important for a person’s own sense of well-being,” says Berkowitz. “In situations where people don’t respond as they know they should, people carry the sadness and grief and disappointment with them for decades.”
It is one thing to learn to be able to respond in an isolated university setting. But what about less ennobling environments? In 1997, Christopher Scott was convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and sentenced to life in a Texas prison. Under the weight of such injustice, it would have been easy to succumb to despair. Instead, he realized that he still had the ability to respond.
“I knew justice would prevail if I did what I had to do,” says Scott. What he had to do was show faith in the face of the million-to-one odds. There was no DNA evidence in his case, so the only way he would be freed was through hard legal work. His time slot at the prison library was 3 a.m., but that was no deterrence; bleary eyed, he read law cases and learned to write writs. Thanks to this hard work, he was exonerated and released after 12 years in prison. Most amazingly, with the compensation he received from the state of Texas, he founded the House of Renewed Hope to help other wrongfully imprisoned men fight for social justice.
“It is really hard to be in that situation; it’s easy to be angry every day, to give in to bitterness, to stop fighting,” says Scott. “To survive, you need to have hope, and to have hope, you need to believe you can change your situation. That belief is one I wanted to give to other people going through what I did.”
Scott’s case is extreme. Yet even in the quieter moments of life, occasions arise to practice response ability. One of the simpler examples is somewhat surprising: Just spend some time with animals.
People often assume they know what others are thinking or project their own needs and emotions onto the person in front of them. But because animals can’t express themselves with language, people work harder to understand their needs and develop the ability to respond. Donna Haraway is a professor in the history of consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and she believes that by seeing animals as “response-able,” people can develop a higher level of response ability. In her seminal book When Species Meet, she cites a fictional example of a man caring for guinea pigs that were used for sleeping sickness research. He felt he couldn’t properly tend to the animals unless he understood their suffering, so he bared his arm, plunged it into their sealed pen and felt the bites of the flies. “Response, of course, grows with the capacity to respond,” Haraway writes. “Responsibility is a relationship crafted in intra-action.”
Ordinary responsibility is pretty much everywhere in modern society. We must follow laws, obey rules, fulfil tasks at work or take care of little brothers and sisters at home. However, these obligations are usually controlled with the carrot-and-stick approach: You get a salary for fulfilling your responsibilities at work; you get grounded if you fail your home responsibilities and let your little brother write all over the walls in permanent marker. The secret of response ability is that it is based on values greater than punishment and reward. It is based on kindness and empathy.
The original concept of responsibility was based on the same notion. One of the first people to define civic responsibility was the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero. In De Officiis (On Duties), which he wrote in the first century BCE, he argued that for society to be successful, responsibility must be underpinned by kindness. “There is no more essential duty than that of returning kindness received,” Cicero wrote. “Ought we not to imitate fertile fields, which bring forth much more than they received?”According to Cicero, you can’t fulfill your duties in society if you don’t respect and show kindness to others. Similarly, kindness is essential to response ability because you can’t properly respond to another person if you don’t attempt to appreciate them.
“Response ability is about understanding people’s needs,” says Larry Brendtro. “It’s about enabling people to be generous with others and help meet those needs.”
Brendtro, a psychologist, has spent a lot of time thinking about the difference between responsibility and response ability. He has worked with troubled children throughout his career, and he noticed that many social workers would try to force these children to accept prescribed solutions without listening to their needs. So in the 1990s, he founded the Reclaiming Youth International Center. Here, Brendtro and his staff provide response ability training for people who work with troubled children and teenagers, including social workers, coaches and teachers. They teach people to respond instead of react, to develop a level of patience and empathy so they can gain a child’s trust. Then they give responsibilities to that child so he can gain mastery and self-confidence. In 10 years, 30,000 people have been trained in this response ability program.
This program was partly inspired by the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow. Most people are familiar with Maslow’s landmark 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” which laid out a hierarchy of needs beginning with basic survival essentials like food and shelter and peaking at what he described as “self-actualization,” the fulfillment of personal ambitions. But Brendtro was more interested in a later version of the pyramid that Maslow discussed in his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality. Too many people interpreted “self-actualization” as the pursuit of individual goals, so Maslow sought to clarify the term and made charity and responsibility the peak human condition. “Committing to a person or cause beyond yourself is part of reaching self-transcendence,” says Brendtro. In the eyes of Emmanuel Levinas, it allows you to become human. Writing in the 1960s, the French philosopher proposed that the human state was fluid. It was only when you were in front of another person and responsible to them, he believed, that your true humanity became fixed.
It’s no surprise that photographer Alisa Resnik is a fan of Levinas’ work. It speaks to her experiences as an artist. She comes alive in the encounter with others, and it is through her responsibility for them that she begins to feel human herself. “I see a profound beauty in the humanity, in the vulnerability of people, and the responsibility rises from there,” says Resnik. “So I absolutely have to trust my feeling, and finally it helps me to learn how to listen to myself in other situations.”
In the 1940s, the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr came up with a simple prayer that resonated so deeply that it has since been emblazoned onto countless posters and embroidered into endless frames. He asked for the serenity to accept what can’t be changed, the courage to change what can be changed and the wisdom to differentiate between the two.
Inside this prayer lies the final beauty of response ability. Yes, it can empower individuals and strengthen communities, but it is also the one thing a person can control in a world full of spontaneous misfortune and random felicity. Even in that worst of cases, a wrongful conviction, you can still control your response. In this life, your response ability remains your final bastion.
Jeremy Mercer’s ability to respond to any situation has been severely limited by the recent arrival of nine Labrador puppies.
Illustrations: Pepijn Barnard

Solution News Source

Silent heroism

Alisa Resnik never had much confidence in herself. Perhaps it was the way her family criticized her as a child, or maybe it was the general negativity of communist Russia when she was growing up in St. Petersburg in the 1980s. Whatever the reason, she often thought she was unworthy, and the idea of doing something for her own benefit felt almost reprehensible. So whether it was a question of faulty heating in her apartment or errors on her university transcript, she never stood up for herself; she never complained.
Then about four years ago, while living in Berlin, Resnik starting taking photographs. The camera became a way of communicating, and she took portraits of friends or strangers she met in bars after her shifts as a waitress. She showed the pictures to a few people, and one of them showed a gallery owner. An exhibition was organized, and something really crazy happened: Resnik won the prestigious European Publisher’s Award for the best emerging photographer in Europe. Suddenly, people wanted to discuss her photographs, and some even wanted to label her subjects “freaks.” For a screening of her work at the prestigious Recontres d’Arles photography festival, a curator chose a creepy David Lynch song, “Crazy Clown Time,” as the background music. And that’s when Resnik, against all odds, said no.
“I told them if they played that music, I would take my photographs and go,” she says. “The people I photograph trust me. I’m in a certain power position when I shoot; I decide how to represent them. I have a responsibility to them, and I have to act on it.”
What astonished Resnik was that it worked. The music was changed, and the screening was a success. This small moment, in which she took responsibility for her subjects, triggered something inside her. “I thought, I can do this,” she says. “I am able to stand for myself.”
This is the magical thing about responsibility. We live in a society that tends to portray responsibility in a negative context, as an obligation that restricts personal choice. It’s a burden associated with work or family or school, something to be avoided so we can chase adventures and pursue dreams. Yet responsibility can be an enormous blessing. By breaking the word into its component parts—“response” and “ability”—we can more easily see that it is both a talent and a strength. Yes, lifeguards have a weighty responsibility in the face of a flailing swimmer, but they also have the wondrous ability to respond and the training and confidence to save a life.
What’s more, responsibility creates profound connections between people. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas described this sort of response ability as the essence of humanity. In his words, a person who is able to respond to another person is propelled into a hallowed state “beyond freedom and non-freedom” and achieves the “unity of the human genre.”
This is why it was no coincidence that Resnik felt such empowerment when she took responsibility for her subjects. Both tangible and spiritual benefits arise from taking responsibility and realizing that even in the darkest moments, you still have the capacity to manage your ability to respond. This is why the philosophy of response ability has been embraced by everybody from youth workers to disaster experts and may eventually lead to the evolution of culture as a whole.
A few years ago, Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, psychologists at the Max Planck Institutes in Germany, ran a series of intriguing experiments. They wanted to know when the instinct to help others emerged, so they gathered a group of 14- to 18-month-old children and put them in situations in which an adult was struggling to complete a task. A child was placed in front of someone who dropped a clothespin while hanging laundry or struggled to open a door because they had an armload of magazines. Amazingly, the children inevitably tried to help. They would walk over and pick up the clothespin or push open the door. The results were the same in eight other scenarios. The psychologists concluded that people are born naturally helpful. “Children display spontaneous, unrewarded helping behaviors when another person is unable to achieve his goal,” wrote Warneken and Tomasello.
In short, children naturally exhibit a high level of response ability. So the question becomes: What happens to this instinct once people get older?
Heroism2
Sadly, it seems to become suppressed. The psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” to describe how people can be conditioned to accept that they are incapable of changing their situation. In the 1960s, he ran a series of tests to see how dogs responded to electric shocks. In an initial experiment, dogs were chained and given shocks. Then the chains were removed, and only a low fence kept the dogs from escaping. Nonetheless, the dogs had been conditioned to believe they were helpless and didn’t try to jump the fence. In another experiment, one set of dogs could stop an electric shock by pressing a lever and another set had no control over the shocks. Afterward, dogs in the first group exhibited normal behavior and showed healthy attempts to avoid further duress. But dogs in the second group passively accepted more punishment. Seligman concluded that helplessness could be inflicted on animals and that people were equally vulnerable. In fact, Seligman, one of the pioneers of positive psychology, argued that many forms of depression are related to people’s induced beliefs that they are powerless.
Of course, people aren’t regularly electrocuted in our society, but our increasing dependence on complex technology does teach us we are unable to respond to situations outside our narrow fields of expertise. The days when a weekend mechanic could tinker on a car engine are gone; anything beyond adding wiper fluid is generally the domain of professionals. Even motivated individuals willing to tackle complex problems find corporations more resistant to such independence. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak believed a computer should be accessible, and early models included a hood so users could fiddle with components; today, Apple busies itself inventing asymmetrical screws so people can’t even open their machines. This corporate age has rendered positive notions of responsibility hollow, thanks to businesses more concerned with image than social obligations that bombard us with public relations messages about “corporate responsibility.”
Ivan Illich was one of the first people to warn against ceding responsibilities to third parties. His 1976 book, The Limits of Medicine, argued that with the advent of big medicine and corporate hospitals, people began to abdicate control of their health and ignore the health of their neighbors. If somebody screams for help, it is natural to step in; however, with highly specialized emergency response systems, we shut down this instinct and leave the matter to the professionals. As Illich wrote, “The siren of one ambulance can destroy Samaritan attitudes in a whole Chilean town.”
Part of the reason society so readily surrenders response ability to organizations is the belief that organizations are better at responding. Yet incidents like FEMA’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina illustrate how institutional thinking can suffocate the ability to respond.
Lucy Easthope is an expert on mass fatality disasters at the University of Lincoln in England. She has worked on site at catastrophes such as the Christchurch earthquake and the Bali bombing. But as horrifying as being on the front line can be, the hardest part of her job often occurs between disasters when she lobbies politicians and bureaucrats to invest in response ability. “Once the cameras are gone and the newspapers move on, there can be a sort of failure of organizational memory,” Easthope says. “It’s hard to convince governments to spend the money, so the question you face is, How far do you go? How much trouble are you willing to get into to remind them that they could fail people twice?”
Take the Hurricane Katrina disaster. There were valuable lessons about providing hospitals with independent energy sources and water supplies. However, as noted by Sheri Fink, author of Five Days at Memorial, none were applied in New York area hospitals, and the same problems arose when Hurricane Sandy struck. It’s easy to get a government to spend $100 million when CNN is broadcasting live from the disaster zone, but as Easthope says, it’s tremendously difficult to get them to spend a small fraction of that to prepare for theoretical catastrophes.
Heroism3
“It is a matter of quiet heroism,” she says. “You have to spend the time and money and energy to ensure your organization has response ability, and if you are successful there are no cameras or spotlights because the problems either don’t occur or they are minimal.”
Easthope’s quiet heroism is an essential facet of this sort of response ability. It’s the nobility of being prepared, of having the first aid kit in the car or the storm lanterns in the garage, foresight that is often fueled by the desire to help both family and strangers.
Of course, when it comes to response ability, institutions are not unique in letting their focus lapse. A survey by the American Red Cross revealed that only a fraction of people who take initial CPR training ever come back for the recommended sessions to renew their skills. Fostering true response ability requires an enduring dedication that can be a challenge for even the most conscientious among us.
When Alan Berkowitz led a drive to get male students involved in issues of date rape and sexual harassment, he ran into a perplexing problem. The more the psychologist talked with young men, the more he heard they felt isolated because they thought aggressive sexual behavior was the norm. Berkowitz became convinced students were operating under dangerous social misconceptions. To confirm this, he ran a survey at Western Washington University. A group of 618 undergraduate students was asked to rate the importance of getting consent for sex or intervening when a woman was being harassed. Then they were asked to guess how their peers would rate the same issues. Across the board, students showed great concern themselves, but vastly underestimated the concern shown by their fellow students.
“Many of these kids were worried about doing something, about being a ‘cock-blocker’ or ruining somebody’s game,” Berkowitz says. “But when they know people will respect them for intervening, they are more likely to respond in a positive way.”
This realization became the foundation for Berkowitz’s workshops on response ability. It’s all about teaching people to trust their instincts and respond in ways that won’t inflame the situation, he believes. Healthy response ability is like a muscle that can be strengthened over time, and it’s an exercise that helps both the community and the individual.
“Responding obviously can help other people, but it is also very important for a person’s own sense of well-being,” says Berkowitz. “In situations where people don’t respond as they know they should, people carry the sadness and grief and disappointment with them for decades.”
It is one thing to learn to be able to respond in an isolated university setting. But what about less ennobling environments? In 1997, Christopher Scott was convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and sentenced to life in a Texas prison. Under the weight of such injustice, it would have been easy to succumb to despair. Instead, he realized that he still had the ability to respond.
“I knew justice would prevail if I did what I had to do,” says Scott. What he had to do was show faith in the face of the million-to-one odds. There was no DNA evidence in his case, so the only way he would be freed was through hard legal work. His time slot at the prison library was 3 a.m., but that was no deterrence; bleary eyed, he read law cases and learned to write writs. Thanks to this hard work, he was exonerated and released after 12 years in prison. Most amazingly, with the compensation he received from the state of Texas, he founded the House of Renewed Hope to help other wrongfully imprisoned men fight for social justice.
“It is really hard to be in that situation; it’s easy to be angry every day, to give in to bitterness, to stop fighting,” says Scott. “To survive, you need to have hope, and to have hope, you need to believe you can change your situation. That belief is one I wanted to give to other people going through what I did.”
Scott’s case is extreme. Yet even in the quieter moments of life, occasions arise to practice response ability. One of the simpler examples is somewhat surprising: Just spend some time with animals.
People often assume they know what others are thinking or project their own needs and emotions onto the person in front of them. But because animals can’t express themselves with language, people work harder to understand their needs and develop the ability to respond. Donna Haraway is a professor in the history of consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and she believes that by seeing animals as “response-able,” people can develop a higher level of response ability. In her seminal book When Species Meet, she cites a fictional example of a man caring for guinea pigs that were used for sleeping sickness research. He felt he couldn’t properly tend to the animals unless he understood their suffering, so he bared his arm, plunged it into their sealed pen and felt the bites of the flies. “Response, of course, grows with the capacity to respond,” Haraway writes. “Responsibility is a relationship crafted in intra-action.”
Ordinary responsibility is pretty much everywhere in modern society. We must follow laws, obey rules, fulfil tasks at work or take care of little brothers and sisters at home. However, these obligations are usually controlled with the carrot-and-stick approach: You get a salary for fulfilling your responsibilities at work; you get grounded if you fail your home responsibilities and let your little brother write all over the walls in permanent marker. The secret of response ability is that it is based on values greater than punishment and reward. It is based on kindness and empathy.
The original concept of responsibility was based on the same notion. One of the first people to define civic responsibility was the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero. In De Officiis (On Duties), which he wrote in the first century BCE, he argued that for society to be successful, responsibility must be underpinned by kindness. “There is no more essential duty than that of returning kindness received,” Cicero wrote. “Ought we not to imitate fertile fields, which bring forth much more than they received?”According to Cicero, you can’t fulfill your duties in society if you don’t respect and show kindness to others. Similarly, kindness is essential to response ability because you can’t properly respond to another person if you don’t attempt to appreciate them.
“Response ability is about understanding people’s needs,” says Larry Brendtro. “It’s about enabling people to be generous with others and help meet those needs.”
Brendtro, a psychologist, has spent a lot of time thinking about the difference between responsibility and response ability. He has worked with troubled children throughout his career, and he noticed that many social workers would try to force these children to accept prescribed solutions without listening to their needs. So in the 1990s, he founded the Reclaiming Youth International Center. Here, Brendtro and his staff provide response ability training for people who work with troubled children and teenagers, including social workers, coaches and teachers. They teach people to respond instead of react, to develop a level of patience and empathy so they can gain a child’s trust. Then they give responsibilities to that child so he can gain mastery and self-confidence. In 10 years, 30,000 people have been trained in this response ability program.
This program was partly inspired by the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow. Most people are familiar with Maslow’s landmark 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” which laid out a hierarchy of needs beginning with basic survival essentials like food and shelter and peaking at what he described as “self-actualization,” the fulfillment of personal ambitions. But Brendtro was more interested in a later version of the pyramid that Maslow discussed in his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality. Too many people interpreted “self-actualization” as the pursuit of individual goals, so Maslow sought to clarify the term and made charity and responsibility the peak human condition. “Committing to a person or cause beyond yourself is part of reaching self-transcendence,” says Brendtro. In the eyes of Emmanuel Levinas, it allows you to become human. Writing in the 1960s, the French philosopher proposed that the human state was fluid. It was only when you were in front of another person and responsible to them, he believed, that your true humanity became fixed.
It’s no surprise that photographer Alisa Resnik is a fan of Levinas’ work. It speaks to her experiences as an artist. She comes alive in the encounter with others, and it is through her responsibility for them that she begins to feel human herself. “I see a profound beauty in the humanity, in the vulnerability of people, and the responsibility rises from there,” says Resnik. “So I absolutely have to trust my feeling, and finally it helps me to learn how to listen to myself in other situations.”
In the 1940s, the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr came up with a simple prayer that resonated so deeply that it has since been emblazoned onto countless posters and embroidered into endless frames. He asked for the serenity to accept what can’t be changed, the courage to change what can be changed and the wisdom to differentiate between the two.
Inside this prayer lies the final beauty of response ability. Yes, it can empower individuals and strengthen communities, but it is also the one thing a person can control in a world full of spontaneous misfortune and random felicity. Even in that worst of cases, a wrongful conviction, you can still control your response. In this life, your response ability remains your final bastion.
Jeremy Mercer’s ability to respond to any situation has been severely limited by the recent arrival of nine Labrador puppies.
Illustrations: Pepijn Barnard

Solution News Source

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