The Riddle of Responsibility.
A man for whom I have a great deal of respect offered me a simple comment in passing at an MEA event. He said, “I’ve found it helps a lot when I take full responsibility… for everything,” placing a strong emphasis on “everything.”
Then he added, “For myself, I mean.” I appreciated that he wasn’t trying to push it on me, but simply had found it helpful and was offering it for consideration. Such humility is refreshing in our often dogmatic I’ll-tell-you-what-to-think culture. It’s like the statement at the close of many 12 Step meetings: Take what you like and leave the rest. Because one size doesn’t fit all. This is to respect the listener.
Yet, big principles also have some universal application it would seem. Is it true? Are we really responsible for everything in our experience? Maybe the better question is “Is it useful?” Where and why? One thing I’ve learned about truth: They are simple when boiled down to their essence. But because of this, proper application is everything. Great truths, misapplied, can lead us right into the ditch!
So my instinctive response was to backpedal. “Well, I don’t know… I think it depends.” Behind the seemingly laconic response, though, my mind was racing to reconcile all the limitations, exceptions and exclusions that began flooding into my awareness. Responsibility for everything? What of Holocaust survivors and rape victims? Isn’t that just blaming the victim? In 2004 there were 227,000 victims of the tsunami that hit India. They were responsible for nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And what of a narcissistic mother who wounds her child by persistently turning responsibility on its head and fashioning it into a weapon of control. Does it make any sense to tell such a grown child to take “full responsibility?” For what? Being born to an emotionally crippled mother? There is real abuse in this world.
Yet I can also see the potential benefits of owning my own sh*t, as it were, and perhaps doing so in a far grander fashion than ever before. At some point, even the child of parental abuse will need to take responsibility for the impact of the wounds inflicted—as they become a part of their own psyche—despite the fact that the initial wounds were not of their making. Taking such responsibility could bolster a person’s “inner locus of control”—the notion that we have some say in how life is unfolding, some control, such that what we do matters. Psychologists tell us this is essential to well being. Because without it, we remain victims, which is a highly disempowered mindset. So yeah… taking more responsibility just might be the ticket!
Let’s see if we might unravel this Gordian knot just a bit more.
At my first Al Anon meeting (12 step group for those affected by another person’s alcoholism), I was told of the Three C’s: Didn’t Cause it. Can’t Control it. Can’t Cure it. At first glance, this is bad news for those experiencing the insane behavior of a family member in the throes of addiction. The question on the mind of many newcomers is, “How can I get them to stop?” Surprise! You can’t!! Only they can do that.
What can we do? Stop making it worse by attempting to control what we cannot—the behavior of another person—and focus on ourselves. Controlling others, regardless of the reason, leads to frustration and destroyed relationships. Healthy relationships are voluntary. Whenever we attempt to violate this, we create inevitable resentment in the person controlled, which ultimately destroys the relationship. We just can’t override the will of another without creating such collateral damage.
Trying to vault ourselves into such a role is to make us the parent and the other a child. We are saying, “I know better than you how to manage your life, so I nominate myself to make all your decisions for you.” In 12-Step language, it’s “playing God.” But oddly, I’ve not heard of God trying so desperately to overpower human freewill. Isn’t it astonishing that human beings feel so naturally entitled to a “right” that not even God attempts to assert!
So the “heavy duty” relationship tools offered in Al Anon encourage us to “stay on our side of the street” and allow others the dignity of owning what is on their side of the street. Toxic relationships lack this clarity of who is responsible for what. They are entangled in codependence, which is always the source of relationship drama. Finding the center of the street, then, and learning to stay on our side of it is to respect both others as well as ourselves. And this drains all the drama out of our relationships!
So back to that idea of “taking full responsibility for everything”—everything that currently lies within us, yes. This includes our thoughts, feelings, motives, responses, words, actions and behavior. And this also includes any residual responses and triggers to past traumas. And here’s the nuance: Abuse inflicted on us is not our responsibility, but our response to it is. Furthermore, it’s also just as important to refuse to take responsibility for what lies on the other person’s side of the street. This is the often overlooked aspect IMHO.
A man became incensed at the Buddha and went on a tirade, slewing insults at him. Throughout, the Buddha remained wholly unaffected and completely at peace, much to the astonishment of his disciples. Later, they asked how he was able to maintain complete equanimity in the face of such fury. He replied, “If someone offers you a gift, and you refuse to accept it, to whom does it belong?” They replied, “To the giver.” And he said, “And so it is with his insults.” The Buddha knew where the center of the street was. He knew what to own and also what not to own—in this case, the feelings of an angry man.
Troy Stetina is a world-renown musician, author, teacher, composer and workshop presenter. He is also an MEA alum who lives in New Mexico with his wife, Alexis.