Carolyn Hax: Clarifying responsibilities and charity registries

Carolyn Hax
Columnist June 29, 2013

Adapted from recent online discussions.

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

You have said a few times something along the lines of “We are not responsible for someone else’s feelings,” and when it comes to the extremes of narcissistic or victim-playing behavior, I get this. But if I do or say something legitimately hurtful, prejudiced, etc., to someone else, whether through malicious forethought or benign error, it’s hard for me not to feel at least a little responsible for the likely distress that person then feels, and I do my best to make amends. True, some of us have an especially Zen approach to life, and each of us ultimately chooses how we react to what life throws at us, but I think I’m understanding your comment much more coldly and heartlessly than you intended. Could you please help clarify?

Anonymous

Truth is, I think a lot of what I advise and espouse amounts to a system — an emotional word problem, in a way. Therefore, talking about it involves breaking down very emotional things into transactions, which is inherently cold.


(Nick Galifiankais)

But that’s just in the mechanics; the result is an emotional exchange, which, if handled with respect and fair concern for all involved, tends to be the opposite of cold.

Take the transaction you cite: If you “do or say something legitimately hurtful, prejudiced, etc., to someone else,” you’re still not responsible for the other person’s feelings; it’s his or her place alone to decide what to think about and do with your actions. BUT: You are responsible for you — which means you make a good-faith effort to express your regret and repair or mitigate any damage when you do something you recognize as wrong.

Short version: Your actions can cause pain, of course, but you can’t reach in and personally adjust the pain levels. You can only change your actions.

It is a cold word problem, but it also shows the path to a happy result where people care about each other while also recognizing the line between what is under your control (the outcome you intend) and isn’t (outcome you get).

Hi, Carolyn:

Ever since I heard of them, I’ve thought charity registries for weddings were a great idea. I recently came across some people saying they were rude, greedy and out of place at a wedding. (Apparently, it’s supposed to be a happy time, not about reminding guests of the world’s problems.) Anyway, is having a charity registry improper etiquette? Or out of line?

Charity

Rude, we can talk about — but “greedy”? [Rubs hands together gleefully]: “I want ALLL your money, HOO ha hahhh, and I’m going to . . . CLOTHE POOR CHILDREN with it!!!!”

As for “reminding” your delicate guests of the “world’s problems,” well, heck, let’s just rewrite all those prayers people say before they eat, because having to be grateful for my food in light of the hunger of others totally trashes the experience of my filet mignon.

So, charity registries indeed have their pros and cons, none of which these complainers managed to touch on, but if you want I can make a great argument against having idiots on your guest list.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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