The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – 6

Pillar 6 – Claim Responsibility

The Phoenix Perspective:
Responsibility = Ability to respond in ways that work


This is going to sound like a philosophy lecture, but that can’t be helped. This topic, claiming responsibility, is one of the most difficult ideas to master, despite its obvious simplicity.

First of all, what we are not talking about is assigning blame. Many people use the word responsibility to mean “who’s responsible (to blame) for this action we don’t like?” That’s not what the word means.

As I’ve said before, the word breaks down to its true meaning – “able to respond.” And, I’ve made the point that a response is different from a reaction. A response is a considered choice of behaviours, whereas a reaction is “what I’ve always done.”

This is a little side comment. I don’t often agree with George Will, who often writes the back page of Newsweek. Here’s one idea I do agree with. A couple of years ago, he wrote an article on America as a nation of victims. One example he gave: At the University of Colorado (I think) is a mountain. Atop the mountain is a high fence. All over the fence are warning signs about not skiing or tobogganing down the hill. A couple climbs the fence, toboggans down. One is killed, one is paralyzed. The paralyzed person sues. And wins. Reason: the University did not do all it could to keep them from breaking the rule. (One wonders if the court expected machine guns and mines… )

Will’s conclusion: people seem to want unlimited freedom to do anything they want, and if they screw up it’s not their fault; they want someone else to blame. Thus, freedom without responsibility. This is the undercurrent to today’s Pillar.

In other words, many people resist responsibility. Choosing to take responsible action can lead to all kinds of psychological pain and certainly to second guessing. This is because behind the responsible act is – you. No one to point a finger at. No false sense of security from doing what everyone else is doing. No mindless following of some set of rules.

Ethical debate often centers around this concept. There are two ways of making ethical choices. One approach is to try to think of every possibility and set up a rule of behaviour to cover it. This is the “Rule of Law.” We should, so the argument goes, be bound by “higher” principles – principles determined in advance by an authority.

This approach has it supporters – the church, government, arbiters of public morality. Such a view will also, implicitly, operate under the “least common denominator” concept. The laws or rules established are for the person at the lowest level of the intellect or moral scale. Everyone else is expected to abide by the same rules.
The goal, actually, is conformity. Keeping everybody in line. Of course, such a rigid approach does not allow for special circumstances, nor does it help people to be responsible for their actions. Rather, such an approach, paradoxically, lets people off the hook. People can justify their behaviour on the basis that they were simply doing what they are required to do. (In Nuremberg, the defense was, “I was just following orders.”)

The opposite to “Rule of Law” ethics is Situational Ethics. A situational ethic looks at what is actually happening, and refuses to apply pat answers. Reason? There are none.

Each situation “is as it is.” There usually is one guiding ethical principle, for example, “Act out of love.” Beyond that, if we truly look, is not one answer, but a myriad of answers. The goal is to contemplate deeply, choose a response, and be responsible for the choice.

I say again, there are no pat answers to life. No one way of being. No behaviour or thought system or religious belief system that will work all the time, in all situations, with all people. As a matter of fact, I will go so far as to say every situation is totally unique and every situation requires a unique response. And every response should be made responsibly, with the parties involved owning their actions and being willing to accept responsibility for the results, the consequences. With no apologies, no regrets, no guilt.

Imagine what your life would be like if you examined what’s happening from one simple framework. “What choices am I making, to get these results?” Or, working in the other direction, “The results I am getting (where I am in my life) are a direct result of the choices I have made.” Where you are and whom you are, as an adult, has precious little to do with anything but you and your choices.

Whom did you think got you to where you are???

In the end we are born alone and die alone. We alone are the source and the motivator for whom we are and whom we become. As a Vocational thinker, I understand that we are here to fulfill a calling. Moving past blame, past complaining, past our fragile egos, is the beginning of finding vocation – and wisdom.

Your thirteenth exercise: What areas of your life do you feel responsible for? Whom do you blame?
What areas need to be brought under your response?

fourteenth lesson

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