How do you meet responsibilities?

Posted: Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Brooke is in fifth grade. He wants to eat breakfast each day before school but sometimes his family does not have enough food. When he does not eat breakfast, he has difficulty concentrating on schoolwork. Compassion and equity require that each child in each family have enough nutrition to enable him to learn. Justice necessitates that each family provide for its children according to its means. What is your responsibility?

Laura, Tim and their extended family live in a house that's not large enough for the seven of them. Their dream is to provide a comfortable home for themselves but they can't afford one. Justice specifies that each family has rights to housing and equity that such rights are free from bias or favoritism. Justice and equity issues also relate to the developer/provider of the housing. What is your responsibility?

Stella is elderly, has several health problems, and limited health care insurance. Her life is complicated by her frailty. Justice requires that she have adequate care; equity requires that she have access to the needed care; and compassion recognizes that some (like Stella) need more assistance to access that care. What is your responsibility?

We talk a lot about values these days. We all believe that we make our decisions based on values. Where do these values come from? Family, culture and religion are three common responses.

I've been thinking about how we develop our values initially and how we change them as we grow. Probably, for most, our initial values come from teachings in our family homes.

William J. Bennett, a staff member of The Heritage Foundation, is the editor of "The Book of Virtues." He uses folk tales, myths and fables that stress some 12 values that he wants to impart to his children. I can picture him telling these stories to his family.

Rushwell Kidder, a 21st century ethicist, writes that many interviews in different cultures show the following core values: Love, truthfulness, fairness, freedom, unity, tolerance, responsibility and respect for life.

George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics, writes that some view life from the perspective of a strict father and some from that of a nurturing parent. Such approaches affect the values taught to the children of such parents. The strict father sets definite rules and is firm and fair; there are few excuses. The nurturing parent sets rules and understands that unique characteristics may affect decisions in some situations. The parent stresses the need for empathy.

In reality, a person is neither a strict father nor a nurturing parent all the time. Each displays some of the traits of one style and some of the other at different times. All types of parents strive to develop values in their children.

One of my favorite books addresses the values of many religions and the differing ways that they express these values. "Oneness," by Jeffrey Moses, lists some common values in the words of various religions. They may express the ideas in different words but all stress love, compassion and other moral principles.

The central theme stressed by the authors above is that all people are concerned with values, their implementation in their lives, and their mutual responsibilities.

Three values that concern me today are justice, equity, and compassion. These three are central in developing the sense of mutual responsibility that sustains our community. None of the three values is supreme in all situations. We need to consider each situation and then to decide which value has primary importance in that particular instance.

The hungry school child, the family seeking adequate shelter, and the sickly elder typify situations where the problem is not right versus wrong; but right versus right. Our sense of mutual responsibility forces us to consider the best decision in each.

What are your values? How do you meet your responsibilities to others in your community?

• Sara H. Willson is a member of the Juneau Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

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