Where do your obligations end? How do they begin?

To focus on individual fault is to neglect the community’s experience and the place all have in working to heal, whether or not they appear to have harmed. David Stobbe via The Globe and Mail

Scapegoating solves nothing

In the middle of last week, amidst the never-ending emergency alerts and constant flow of updates about the stabbing rampage that occurred in Saskatchewan, a short piece on cbc.ca1 caught my attention and I have been thinking about it ever since.

The article was titled with a quote: “’My boy, turn yourself in,’ says mother of fugitive suspected in Sask. mass killing.” The words have echoed around in my mind as I have gone through the motions this week, meeting my obligations, completing tasks on my to-do lists, and talking with friends and family. I tried to focus on why my mind kept being drawn back to the sentence I had read, and I have now realized it is the first two words that have made me reflect.

These two words had been floating up into the forefront of my mind as I did the work I find to be the most important and meaningful I get to do in my life. Two words that were subconsciously causing me to consider where my obligations to people ended, exactly. And to think about where my obligations even begin at all.

“My boy.”

Two words that work to establish an important connection. Words that can be seen as a call home. A demonstration of recognition, stewardship, and love. Words that mark the person as belonging, as having a place in the world. Words that are a reminder to all involved. Claiming words.

The statements in this article from the parents asking their son to do the right thing and turn himself in, apologizing for the horrific harm caused as if they themselves had played an explicit role in the attacks, are deeply ingrained in my mind. All week while I interacted in my community, made decisions that would affect others, and considered my own roles in the world, the words kept taking up space in my life.

In their words I saw a tremendous amount of understanding, responsibility, and a deep undercurrent of the knowledge that a person’s obligations in life do not end as neatly as we all walk around pretending and hoping. That our collective tendency to deem a person causing harm as an individual aberration is not the whole picture. That our work to dismiss someone as bad, evil, or ill may not be as complete an answer as it could be. That any efforts taken to exile, punish, and extract an eye for a proverbial eye do not work to address the problems we keep encountering as a collective. That these strategies of passing the obligations we have to each other as far away from us as possible ensures we will never meaningfully understand, let alone address, the problems out there.

We all have a responsibility to and for each other. Whether directly or not, we all contribute to the situations we all find ourselves in. Passively, actively, implicitly, explicitly – we are all involved in the building up and the tearing down of our families, friends, communities, and the world we find ourselves in. This is difficult, messy, impossible feeling work.

But, I feel that these parents of these men displayed with just a few words that walking forward with this approach is possible. That we can be deeply and meaningfully engaged with this kind of understanding of responsibility for and obligation to each other. That we must be committed to the welfare of all, even if we cannot see exactly how it is that our choices are shaping others. Even when it feels impossible.

I encountered a favourite song of mine by John K. Samson, and it brought a much-needed way forward from the words in the article that had been haunting me. Postdoc Blues is suffused with Samson’s characteristic prairies pragmatism and stubbornness, and it includes adapted lines from the book Active Hope by Joanna Macy, painting a picture of how we may become strong enough to do this work:

“I vow to myself and to each of you:

To commit myself daily to the healing of our

world and the welfare of all beings.

To pursue a daily practice

that clarifies my mind, strengthens my heart,

and supports me in observing these vows.”


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