Responsibility is a conundrum. How much is too much? How much is too little? We can never answer those questions once and for all. They are an ongoing part of the human drama. But we can engage with life as beings who are fully responsible in each and every moment. Such engagement is the key to being human, and spiritually well, as this Provision makes clear.
We start with good news and bad news. First, for the good news: you are fully responsible for everything in your life. Now, for the bad news: you are fully responsible for everything in your life. Responsibility, you see, cuts both ways.
- If you maintain an optimal weight, exercise regularly, and avoid distress, then it’s all your responsibility.
- If you weigh too much or too little, exercise sporadically, and stress out, then it’s all your responsibility.
- If you enjoy healthy relationships with family and friends, then it’s all your responsibility.
- If you endure toxic relationships with family and friends, then it’s all your responsibility.
- If you work at a wonderful job that’s rewarding in every way, then it’s all your responsibility.
- If your job is both unrewarding and unfulfilling, then it’s all your responsibility.
- If you never get sick, then it’s all your responsibility.
- If you battle illness or disease, then it’s all your responsibility.
- If you have the resources and wherewithal to be successful, then it’s all your responsibility.
- If you lack the resources and wherewithal to be successful, then it’s all your responsibility.
- If you live a charmed life, where everything just seems to work out, then it’s all your responsibility.
- If you hit one obstacle after another, no matter what you try to do, then it’s all your responsibility.
Do you begin to get the idea? We are fully responsible for everything in our lives, both good and bad. That’s a hard message for many people to hear. One of my colleagues reports that he would call himself a “Responsibility Coach,” or even a “Discipline Coach,” if he could, but then he would have no clients. So, instead, he calls himself a “Motivation Coach.” People don’t like to take responsibility as a rule, and they certainly don’t like to take responsibility for everything in their lives.
Of course, you may object, how can this be! Germs cause illness, not me. And what about the social structures of injustice? We certainly can’t take full responsibility for the ravages of racism, discrimination, and poverty. Let alone children who get victimized by abuse? They can hardly be held responsible for that. And what about those who seem to have it all • born with beauty and brains, not to mention a silver spoon in their mouths.
Questions such as these confuse responsibility with accountability. The two are related but radically different. “Accountability” means that we are “liable to being called to account” or “answerable” for something. It is all about blame, fault-finding, and culpability. In that sense, we are obviously not fully accountable when we suffer the ravages of illness, oppression, or abuse. Sometimes they get us, no matter what.
But that doesn’t mean we are not fully responsible for these ravages and everything else in our lives. “Responsibility” means that we are “able to respond” or commit to something. It is all about engagement, empowerment, and self-mastery. From that vantage point, we can obviously take responsibility for the ravages as well as the refinements of life. We can always find ways to respond.
In fact, we always do respond whether by design or default. The question is not “if” but “how” we will respond to the moment. Unfortunately, far too many people respond with the attitude of “poor me.” We whine and complain about the unfairness of life (“why is everybody always picking on me”) and the lack of good options (“why is it so impossible to get anything done”).
When responses such as these become habitual ways of relating to the world, people are diagnosed with character disorders. They assign blame, fault, and causality to everything outside themselves. They never ask the question, “What can I do to make things better?” And so nothing ever gets better. When it comes to health, money, and love, they point the finger at external agents, both visible and invisible. They refuse to accept what M. Scott Peck calls one of the greatest truths, namely, that life is difficult.
“This is a great truth,” he writes, “because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult • once we truly understand and accept it • then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
Most people, he continues, “do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead, they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy.” But that’s not life. “Life is a series of problems. And discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems.”
“Without discipline we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems.” And we can also infuse life with meaning. “Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure,” Peck notes. They “call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom.”
“It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. When we desire to encourage the growth of the human spirit, we challenge and encourage the human capacity to solve problems. It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn. As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Those things that hurt, instruct.’ It is for this reason that wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and even to welcome the pain of problems.”
Unfortunately, as Peck observes, most of us are not so wise. “Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems. We procrastinate, hoping they will go away. We ignore them, forget them, or pretend they do not exist. We even take drugs to assist us in ignoring them, so that by deadening ourselves to the pain we can forget the problems that cause the pain. We attempt to skirt around problems rather than meet them head on. We attempt to get out of them rather than to suffer through them.”
In other words, we fail to respond to life with full engagement. But that’s no way to be spiritually well. Good intentions, without responsibility, pave the way to spiritual illness. And so does the opposite problem, of feeling accountable for everything. When that happens we become neurotic. Discipline becomes a compulsion that drives us to distress. And the outcomes are no better than those who suffer from character disorders. In one case, nothing gets better because we under respond to the difficulties of life. In the other case, nothing gets better because we over respond.
That’s a key distinction when it comes to responsibility. There’s a difference between being overly responsible and being fully responsible. Being fully responsible means that we are fully able to respond, moment by moment, to whatever comes our way. Nothing immobilizes or paralyzes us. Instead, we are always able to respond appropriately, effectively, powerfully, redemptively, and fully.
Being overly responsible means that we are overly accountable and overly invested in the outcomes of life. We want things to go our way, so we drive and push our agenda at either our own expense or the expense of others. By feeling so liable for the end product we stop feeling so pliable in the present moment. And that often gets us in trouble.
Most of us know people who suffer from the problem of over responsibility. They are either slave drivers or martyrs. The slave drivers are going to get where they want to go, no matter what or who they have to trample in the process. The martyrs are going to do it all themselves, wondering and complaining the entire time as to why no one ever lends a hand.
Peck makes the astute observation that you can tell a responsibility problem from the language people use. Those who over respond speak in terms of “I ought to,” “I should,” and “I shouldn’t.” Those who under respond speak in terms of “I can’t,” “I couldn’t,” “I have to,” and “I had to.” He also notes that few of us can escape from these problems completely.
The reason for this is that figuring out how to respond to the problems of life is one of the greatest problems of human existence. It is never completely solved and it is something we need to assess and reassess continuously in the ever-changing course of events. It is also never easy, since it requires us to examine both ourselves and our environment in the process of striking the right balance.
Peck notes that such discernment is “not inherent in any of us.” We are not born with either the capacity or the inclination to figure this out. We must learn, “through a vast amount of experience and a lengthy and successful maturation” how to “see the world and our place in it realistically” in order to determine exactly how best to respond the exigencies of life.
But learn this we can, as Yoda would say, with commitment, practice, and courage. We can avoid the pitfalls of both over responsibility and under responsibility by embracing full responsibility. By fully acknowledging and accepting our ability to respond • creatively, constructively, and collaboratively • in every situation and every moment we can solve the problems of living, grow spiritually, and add ballast in a world that is sinking under the weight of its own despair.
Coaching Inquiries: Do you err on the side of over responsibility or of under responsibility? How can you embrace full responsibility? Are there situations that need your attention and care? How can you drop the agenda and take on full engagement? Who can assist you to make the change?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
I just finished reading you Provision: Embrace Mindfulness. I think this is another winner!!! I don’t know if its just me that needs to read this or what, but I am really connecting with your thoughts lately and they seem to dovetail so perfectly with what I’ve been meditating on. Another great job! Thanks
Thanks for sharing your references to John Kabat-Zinn’s recent book, Coming To Our Senses. He also has two other excellent works, Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go There You Are. Some of your faithful reader’s may want to refer to those books for the basics in practicing mindfulness meditation and how to get started with this practice. As always, I continue to enjoy your weekly teachings. Keep up your good work.
Great Provision Bob on Embracing Mindfulness. Another good example of attention deficiency would be all those people who use the “mute” button on their telephones to multi-task without the awareness of the caller on the other end of the line! (Editor’s Note: OK, you caught me. I’m occasionally guilty of this. But there are times, like when I have to sneeze, when that is exactly the right thing to do.)
This is a great Provision on mindfulness! You are amazing how you keep pulling them out!
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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