Life is a delicate balance of rights and responsibilities. Each day, we’re faced with a myriad of situations that challenge us in this balance, threatening to upset its delicate nature. I believe that a healthy and informed view of one’s relationship to both of these concepts is key in making the world a better place. Greater still, a failure in either of these areas can spell catastrophe.
Growing up, I always thought that I had to demand my rights, which meant demanding that others should uphold their responsibilities. After all (came my reasoning), if I don’t demand my rights, who will? Should I let people walk all over me? Should I allow others to think for me? Likewise, I thought that the failure of others to uphold their responsibilities would infringe on my rights.
As I grew older, I looked out and saw that others needed their rights too. My rights were still the primary focus, but it seemed important that no one else have to suffer either. Plus, it didn’t hurt that I was ultimately still just fighting for my own rights–that whole “First They Came for the …” concept.
Eventually, the idea dawned on me that I wasn’t the only one demanding my rights or the rights of others. I realized that everyone was doing it, and often in direct conflict with someone else demanding their rights. Which raised the question, whose rights take precedence and why?
But that’s the wrong question.
I assert that we must switch the reflexive pronouns we use when we think about the balance of rights and responsibilities. Problems occur when I have an unhealthy expectation in demanding my rights or expecting you to uphold your responsibilities. Change spreads, however, when I hold myself responsible and am willing to sacrifice for the rights of others. And not just the rights of some nebulous group out there, but with each person I interact with on a daily basis.
Of course, I don’t mean to say that we have to deny our rights. Not by any means. Nor should we let ourselves or others be trampled on. Likewise, sacrificing too much can just enable the other party, and that would create an even greater problem. And in the same vein, to teach our children and spread the idea that it is virtuous to uphold our responsibilities is a noble calling that should not be ignored. And yet, I consider it far better to take responsibility on myself and give rights to others.
Look at the greats of human history, and I’d wager they had an adjusted focus like this. Mother Theresa consistently gave her life for the poor, not asking for her own rights, but for those of the orphans she cared for. Martin Luther King Jr. may have fought for his own rights in addition to that of others, but he did so by assuming his responsibility as a leader and law-abiding citizen. He understood that he couldn’t demand complacency in an angry population, but could lead the way forward in peace and understanding.
Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr. both exercised faith. They put aside their immediate worries, took on responsibility, and freely gave rights to others. They knew they couldn’t control everyone else, but that they could control themselves. So they did. Imagine if we all did the same.