Mr. Carney, now in his fourth year of medical training, delivered this 1965 Commencement address at the
You are the product of your past. You are also the creator of your future. Now stop and think what this means in terms of individual responsibility. It is a concept of crucial importance, perhaps more important today than in any other time in history.
Why is this so? Because today, the operation of many of society’s most important institutions have had the effect of relieving us of individual responsibility. Government has increasingly assumed our burdens—welfare, compulsory social security, compulsory health insurance—all intended, we are told, to divide more equitably the benefits of a productive, modern society. While governments do provide material benefits for some, these interventions do in fact release all of us from the exercise of choice and of individual responsibility. Automation with its demands for greater efficiency has reduced man’s control over the extent and conduct of his work. Productivity has soared. Yet the exercise of responsibility is frustrated. Modern conveniences have had a profound influence on modern living—more comfort yet less responsibility.
I do not wish to sound old-fashioned, or appear as one opposed to modern practices, but I am pointing out that many essential aspects of our society which we consider modern and progressive do in fact reduce the sphere of individual responsibility. This is quite surprising to me, especially since in no other time in history has the clamor for freedom been so intense. Authors demand more freedom of expression. Censorship is banned by the courts; the distinction between artistry and pornography vanishes. Absolute standards of right and wrong are being replaced by moral relativism. Permissiveness in the raising of children is in vogue. Parents are more concerned with "getting along" with their children than they are with providing leadership and direction. Authority is questioned and challenged, often in the form of illegal demonstrations. These are but a few examples of the general climate of restlessness—the urge to break the shackles of tradition—to forge a society in which our innermost needs and feelings may be expressed and satisfied. It is an interesting paradox, then, that whereas freedom has become an obsession in some areas, we are relatively unconcerned about it in other areas, although admittedly in the latter, the manner in which our freedom is curtailed is far more subtle.
How has this climate of change come about? Perhaps it is because of the high standard of living we have achieved. We are no longer pre-occupied with mere survival; we are concerned rather with the quality of survival. Perhaps it is because of the incredible advances attained by science and technology. Man has always sought utopia. He now sees it within his grasp. Perhaps this climate of change is the result of growing urbanization. In migrating to the cities we are separated from the traditional ways of life fostered by our ancestors. Having broken traditional ties, we are no longer convinced of their wisdom. More and more we employ reason and the scientific method to create and sustain a system of values. This is breeding a kind of "test tube morality." Unless the value in question is proven to us in objective, black-and-white terms, we are not apt to believe in it. Probably no one of these factors explains the changes we are witnessing today. More likely, they are the result of a combination of these and other factors, not affecting each individual equally, but nonetheless exerting their influence on the population as a whole.
Man Modifies His Environment
It is in this context of social and cultural change that individual responsibility assumes its greatest importance. You are the maker of your environment. I refer not only to your external or physical environment, but to your internal environment of thoughts and feelings. Of course, environment leaves its mark on you. Modern theories of psychology tell us this—but perhaps with too much emphasis. I conceive of man as the master of his own thoughts, over which environment exerts varying degrees of influence. Some individuals are complete and abject servants of their environment, kicked around by every quirk of fate. Others have stood firm, failed to yield, and even changed environment suitable to their needs.
Environment is changing—at a pace frightening, and yet exciting, to comprehend. Yet it is always within control, providing we as individuals are prepared and willing to accept the responsibility.
How can we prepare ourselves to accept this responsibility? First, we must regard responsibility and the exercise thereof as essential to the growth and development of the personality. Just as food is required for the body, so is responsibility required for the personality. Wouldn’t it be uplifting if we would react as strongly to lack of responsibility as we do to lack of food?
But the mere realization of the importance of individual responsibility is insufficient. We must in fact be responsible. We must transform our thoughts into action. You have all heard the adage: "Nothing succeeds like success." It is also true that nothing weakens like weakness. The continual shying away from responsibility weakens the personality. Weakness leads to discouragement and discouragement leads to further neglect of responsibility. This vicious cycle, thus set up, can be interrupted only by people showing courage and determination. They will find that just as the vicious cycle of weakness works against them, the self-generation of strength will work for them.
The sine qua non of individual responsibility is discipline. Discipline—the idea that practice makes perfect; the idea that football games are won rarely on Saturday, but in the practice sessions throughout the week; the idea that good habits make good men. With discipline, you will learn good judgment. You will learn to resist the distraction of irrelevancies. How crucial is this ability in our society today!
Responsibility toward Others
Finally, it must not be assumed that this concept of individual responsibility will breed exaggerated self-concern and thus selfishness. Quite to the contrary, the individual who is responsible to himself is more often responsible to others. And more than that, this same individual has more likely developed the skills required to contribute more fully to another person’s happiness. I stated at the outset that you are the creator of your future; but you are also the creator of the future of others. In this context society demands that you act responsibly.
If there be one point that I would have you remember tonight, it is simply that society is only as good as the individuals who live within it. As each individual is strong, so is society. When each individual is willing to give up his freedom, so will society be eager to take it away.
Above all else, we must not take our society for granted. Each of us owes our freedom and prosperity to the courage, the good judgments, and the devotion of our predecessors. Will we continue in the same tradition? One cannot predict. However, we can be certain that in the final analysis, the praise, or blame, will rest with the individual.
First Step to Progress
One of the strange quirks in human nature is the alacrity with which we pounce on any shortcoming in our government, our economic system, our employer, our grocer, and our garage man, in contrast to the tolerance with which we view our personal follies.
All of us are beset with limitations. The first essential for progress is to recognize our weaknesses and take pains to overcome them. When we have done this, we are fit for civilized society.
Once a man has taken a sober look at himself, and has made an honest report, he has moved forward. His next step should be to make himself as useful as he can. Let him give his job, his employer, and his community a square deal by close application to his little task. Soon he will find that larger tasks are passed to his desk, and that tangible appreciation of his effort is finding its way into his pay envelope.
William Feather, The William Feather Magazine, June, 1965