Think for a minute about these images: is it literally possible for a person to pull herself up by her bootstraps? Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines bootstrap as follows: "a looped strap sewed at the side or the rear top of a boot to help in pulling it on." OK. Now imagine yourself sitting on the floor. You're wearing boots, with bootstraps. Now pull yourself up by those bootstraps. Right. Not happening.
And has there ever been a "self-made man," or woman for that matter? No one makes her own self or has only himself to thank for a lifetime of achievements. We are all way more connected to each other than most of us ever realize or acknowledge. We are all reliant on our families, our communities, our teachers, our friends, the kindness of strangers.
Still, there is certainly a place for "personal responsibility." Yes, indeed, you are responsible for your own actions. But responsibility doesn't end there. You are also responsible for how your actions affect those around you. George Lakoff asserts that "social responsibility" involves empathy. "Empathy is not mere sympathy. Putting oneself in the shoes of others brings with it the responsibility to act on that empathy—to be 'our brother's keeper and our sister's keeper'—and to act to improve ourselves, our country, and the world."
So whereas "personal responsibility" may be taken to mean "caring for oneself," "social responsibility" is taking care of others as well: family, community, country, and even members of groups to which one does not belong: other communities, other faiths and belief systems, other countries, other continents.
The raising of personal responsibility to a position of paramount importance, boiling it down to unbridled self-interest and rampant greed, separating it from empathy and social responsibility—these ideological land mines underlie our current crisis, which is way more than an economic crisis. What we are experiencing is a crisis of identity and morality and values.
When we adopt social responsibility and use it to temper and contextualize our personal responsibility, we begin to realize that in the long term all of our destinies are interdependent. My well-being, the well-being of my family, and that of my community are intertwined with the well-being of people living thousands of miles away, people whose language, culture, economic means, and values are very different from my own.
Our baser instincts are to think in terms of "us versus them." This thinking also involves the assumption that there's just not enough for all of us, so we are necessarily in competition with "them" for the stuff we need (or think we need). Our better angels, though, aspire to more than greed and rampant consumerism. They aspire to looking out for the welfare of all in the secure knowledge that everything we need is available to us in abundance.
According to Robert Creamer,
Responsibility for others is not some "soft" or "utopian" value; it is critical to our success and survival on our increasingly crowded planet. More than that, it's the key that will both prevent us from destroying ourselves—and can unlock exponentially expanding human possibility in the 21st century.
So the old "us versus them" needs to grow up and evolve into "we." Notice that, grammatically speaking, us and them are both objects, whereas we is a subject. The objects are acted upon, whereas the subject does the acting. We are the actors; we are taking responsibility, not only for ourselves but for our fellow humans and our fellow creatures and our lovely green planet. We. We are becoming the ones we have been waiting for.