It seems unreasonable to claim that any of us could be responsible for the actions of a stranger. But I am beginning to believe that there are two kinds of evil: personal and systemic. At the very least, we must address personal evil. But a truly moral person addresses both, taking personal responsibility for the structural distortions of power and privilege.
This is one way the early Christians may have interpreted Christ: the one who took personal responsibility for all the suffering in the world, and by carrying this burden, healed it, lifted it, saved the world. In the Gospel of Philip, it is said that people should not become Christians but "Christs," sent out to suffer with those who suffer, to shoulder evil as if it were our own (perhaps it is). By so doing, our burden becomes light, perhaps because we cease to carry it with our smallest selves. We become larger by sharing the pain of the larger world, and the burden is lighter than the weight of a meaningless life (that unbearable lightness of being).
I think this principle is universal. A famous story claims that the Buddha gave his body to a tigress in another life, so that she would eat him instead of her cubs. When people came begging for sight, he gave them his very own eyes."When he was a king, he gave away his wealth and even his whole family—his wife, sons and daughters—to other sentient beings. Numberless times he offer his own body as charity to other sentient beings, to the spirits, to animals, to humans." In the spirit of the sacrificial Buddha, a common Buddhist meditation involves taking on the suffering of others in order to give it back to them as a harmless, compassion-healed thing.
So the guilt I feel about my neighbor's suicide does contain a grain of truth.
I know that radical responsibility can be a dangerous idea. For many who commit suicide, absolutely nothing can be done to save them. Attentive mothers, fathers, friends, shower them with love and support, but some will choose death anyway. And it is extremely doubtful that I could have done anything to prevent this tragedy, even if I had reached out long before, with greetings, with baked goods, with any gesture of friendship.
So let us define it like this: we are responsible for letting grace flow through us in the form of generosity and care. But we cannot ensure that anyone will receive this generosity (or that it will be enough to save them). It is true that "no one is responsible for your happiness but you," but it is also true that humans have the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," a phrase which implies that a government is to allow the conditions for happiness to flourish. This is our responsibility to others: to help cultivate the conditions for happiness, whether or not they choose to receive them.
Communal responsibility. Systemic sin.
I saw pictures of thousands of people on Florida and California beaches, unperturbed by the millions they are endangering by not self-isolating. And I thought "we need a new story." Americans pride themselves on independence and creativity, but it seems nearly impossibly for us to think communally for us to admit that there is no such thing as "a self-made man" and a thousand factors have to comply in order for someone to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. This pandemic proves that this isn't only a form of insanity (to imagine that we can perform any action without affecting everything) but it is also deadly: thousands of people will die unnecessarily because we cannot effectively visualize communal responsibility.
This is all related: the suicide, coronavirus, the Buddha and the Christ.
There is something about enlightenment which requires radical responsibility, a responsibility that few of us are willing to shoulder.
But this "something" starts small. So I make the upstairs neighbor a loaf of bread, leaving it on her porch with a note, "knock if you need toilet paper, beans, milk", etc. I think she may have been the last one to see him alive, when she left with that measuring cup full of his milk, stepping over his placemat which still reads "all are welcome here," as we walked past, bystanders to an act of generosity. He offered grace and generosity, and she received.