All Commentary
Wednesday, September 1, 1965

Be Responsible

Mr. Carney, now in his fourth year of medi­cal training, delivered this 1965 Commence­ment address at the Irvington (New York) High School from which he was graduated in 1958.

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