Tag Archives: Responsibility

Taking on Responsibility

Jordan Peterson frequently makes the argument that life is made meaningful by taking on as much responsibility as possible. The idea of taking responsibility occurs frequently in “self-help” literature. Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, for example, talks about taking responsibility as opposed to being “entitled” and expecting success to be given without earning it. Jack Canfield and Dave Andrews talk about committing to their program 100% (integral to taking on responsibility as I will explain) as a means of cutting off the internal, mental debate that would ensure if one committed anything less than 100% to the 30 Day Sobriety Solution.

Although the idea of taking responsibility is approached from different perspectives by each author there is a common theme present among them all. That is, the best way to live one’s life is by taking on the responsibility of living it. Put another way, the best way to live one’s life is to embrace the responsibilities that present themselves rather than avoiding them, treating them as a burden or blaming them for your own problems. Whether this means deriving meaning through responsibility, accepting the consequences of one’s actions without excuses, complaint or blame, or simply deciding to leave no wiggle room to escape when one makes a decision, the taking on of responsibility brings forth an authenticity to one’s life that would not otherwise be there. This authenticity, in turn, improves the quality of existence because it is aligned with Truth.

One might reasonably argue that the aforementioned authenticity comes from both taking control of one’s life by actively deciding to take on responsibility as well as from submitting to the higher power that bestowed the responsibility upon the self. In other words, authenticity is found by navigating that middle ground between ego and selflessness. The ego is needed for survival in this world. But selflessness or service to a purpose other than the self is where meaning can be found. Obviously, meaning in this world cannot be found if one is dead, so one must first survive. So in a sense, it is authentic (or real or truthful) to acknowledge both the need for the self to survive and the need to be selfless to provide meaning to the self’s existence at the same time.

Manson talks about the difference between fault and responsibility. He asserts that we are not at fault for the situations in which we find ourselves much of the time. But we are always responsible for how we act in response to those situations. This means that we frequently find ourselves in situations not of our own making that we are, nevertheless, responsible for. In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, he provides the example of someone leaving a baby on another person’s doorstep. In this scenario, the person to whom the doorstep belongs is not at fault for the baby’s predicament, but once he becomes aware of the baby, he becomes responsible for acting to protect the baby or deliver it to someone else who can. In this situation he could theoretically avoid responsibility and pretend he has not seen the baby or in some other way ignore it. But (I assume few people would contest) that the right thing to do would be to take responsibility for the situation.

Notice, that pretending he has not seen the baby or ignoring the baby requires the doorstep owner to act inauthentically. He is pretending he has not seen the baby when he actually has seen it in order to avoid responsibility for it. Of course, one could argue that if the baby is not a member of the doorstep owner’s tribe (however he chooses to define it) he could authentically not take responsibility for the baby out of principle. That is, he is only responsible for those people he defines as inside his tribe. But this, in my eyes, would be denying the innocence and humanity of the baby who is neither at fault nor responsible for its situation and therefore, the doorstep owner’s denial would necessarily be another form of inauthenticity.

Now, it is not immediately obvious that the taking on of responsibility should be a proper aim in life. For example, many people often assume that happiness should be the proper orienting principle. But this would be a mistake from the position of those who hold that responsibility should be the orienting principle. Peterson argues that happiness is nice when it comes around but is not the proper goal because unbridled happiness is antithetical with survival in the material world. Manson argues that happiness is not enough because life is suffering and the only way for a person to grow and learn is by encountering problems and solving them. Happiness comes as a by product of solving problems but the problems, and solving of the problems, are integral parts of the process and should be accepted as such.

In the final analysis, the only way any individual can determine if taking on responsibility should be their proper aim in life and whether pursuing this aim will improve their life is to try it for themselves and to learn from it empirically. In a sense, taking on responsibility requires this empirical investigation because in a sense, taking on responsibility is itself an empirical investigation. That is, one who takes on a responsibility will necessarily learn from the experience. But again, the responsibility should be taken on willingly and not viewed as a burden or imposition. This is the connection with Jack Canfield and Dave Andrew’s concept of committing 100% to a process. Because any commitment that is less than 100% is not taking full responsibility for whatever is being undertaken. If a responsibility is not taken on with 100% commitment then it is not seriously being taken on. This, in turn, will open the door to the internal debate as to whether the responsibility should be taken on it the first place. Whereas, taking on a responsibility with 100% commitment eliminates this internal debate.

 

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Loyalty

cornMy father always extolled the virtues of loyalty.  Specifically, he extolled the virtue of him being loyal to his employer. He demonstrated this by buying its products when given the choice (for example).  He reasoned that his employer provided him with a living and for that reason he (and by extension his family) should be loyal to his employer.  The company he worked for was bought in the 80s by another larger company and my father lost his job as a result.  He remained unemployed for a couple of years before another company hired him.  During that period I remember him being very irritable and angry. I was young at the time and did not make the connection between the anger he vented on me and my siblings and the fact that he felt betrayed regarding his lack of employment. On one hand this was not an issue of loyalty per se. His employer paid him for the work he did and there was a reciprocal relationship there. Another company purchased his company and replaced the management team. There technically was no breach of loyalty in the scenario. However, there is no denying the fact that he felt betrayed. Perhaps it was the issue of loyalty on a higher level that seemed to be frustrated when he lost his job. Perhaps he felt that the universe was somehow being disloyal or had breached some sort of implied cosmic contract.

My father naturally passed this sense of loyalty on to me. Growing up, I always considered loyalty to be an admirable quality demonstrating one’s personal sense of responsibility and that being disloyal was a sin akin to  irresponsibility.  I connect this idea with the fact that I grew up in a family environment where the sense was constantly impressed upon me that World War II was a golden age for America. The war years were a time when everyone was loyal and patriotic (at least this was the way it had been described to me). This idea implied that the reason the United States of America of my youth seemed to be a declining power could be attributed to its citizens no longer being as loyal and patriotic as they were during the period of World War II.

I remember talking to my uncle (my father’s brother) at my wedding right before the ceremony was about to begin.  At the time I assumed my uncle had the same virtues as my father because they grew up in the same mid western family under the same parents. I remember telling my uncle that I learned the value of loyalty from his generation.  My uncle replied tersely, “loyalty is earned.”  This struck me as a different message than I was accustomed to hearing from my father but I put it aside for the time being.

I always felt a responsibility to be loyal to society at large and the organizations in which I was a member.  I felt that if I followed the rules I would naturally succeed and be rewarded in due time. My experience, however, did not prove this feeling to be true. It seems like every organization of which I was a member declined around me because other people were not as loyal to it as they should have been. That is, they did not take their membership seriously and they were not as loyal as I was. There were many situations where I remained loyal when other people bailed and I went down with the ship of more than a few organizations in my life.  At times I looked at these people who were not being loyal around me who in many cases went on to be more successful and less burdened by my concerns. This made me feel jealous, resentful and somehow guilty all at the same time.

I worked for a law firm for eight years and hated it because I never felt valued by the organization. I wanted to quit throughout these eight years but never did because I was afraid to loose the income I needed to pay for the obligations I had accumulated. And so I existed in a state of limbo where I forced myself to work for an organization that did not value me and that I intensely disliked. I wonder if this idea of loyalty somehow influenced me to stay with this law firm. If true, the fact that I was loyal to someone who did not seem loyal to me in return suggests to me that this strategy is flawed. It seems that loyalty in certain situations appears and feels on some level to be virtuous but is actually a self defeating manipulation. Similar to my father’s employer the law firm eventually laid me off in 2009 during the great recession.  At first I felt liberated but then felt like I had been screwed. All those years of loyalty were wasted years in many respects. I also question what exactly I was being loyal to. Again, there seems to be this larger, universal, contractual sense to loyalty at play here.

Is loyalty for suckers?  In many ways I think my uncle was right.  I suppose I am a sucker if I chose to be loyal to someone  who has not earned my loyalty. There certainly is a place for loyalty when it derives from a reciprocal relationship of mutual trust and respect. But I can see now that loyalty for the sake of loyalty itself (perhaps this in the universal loyalty I touched upon) is definitely for suckers. A person who adopts this philosophy is probably an easy target for any person, corporation or other organization that wants to take advantage of it.

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The Argument Against Shame

BridgeShame is the feeling that you have done something wrong. But more deeply, shame is the feeling that you are wrong as a person fundamentally. As a society we tend to think that shame is necessary and even a force for good because it keeps people in line and prevents them from acting badly. It is my contention that shame is completely unnecessary, often harmful and is in no way a moralizing principle.

It is supremely unfortunate that our society feels that shame is a moralizing principle. Imagine a kid caught stealing a pack of gum from a store. When he is caught he is made to feel ashamed of himself by whatever authority figure caught him. Our society feels that it is then appropriate to shame this kid because it punishes him for the crime committed. Moreover shame also prevents him from stealing gum in the future because he will not want to feel the shame of getting caught a second time. But this is not morality. Morality would be choosing not to steal the gum in the first place because he knew in his heart that stealing was wrong. It is not moral to refrain from stealing merely out of a fear of being punished.

Our society also tends to feel that feeling shame is connected to being responsible. The argument goes that if the kid did not feel shame after stealing gum then he would go around stealing gum all the time unhindered. But this is not responsibility. In fact the argument assumes the kid is intrinsically irresponsible and requires shame to make him act responsibly.

Our society also tends to feel that shame is a just punishment for the crime. The kid steals the gum, gets caught and feels shame. We clearly see the crime and the punishment. This would be fine if this is where it ended but shame tends to linger far longer than it is useful for the purpose of punishment. To illustrate the point, how many people reading this post feel regret and embarrassment to this day for situations that occurred years and years ago? Do you honestly feel that punishment fits what ever crime you committed so long ago?

In truth, shame is a virus. I say it is a virus because it spreads from person to person as people who feel ashamed of themselves tend to want to make other people feel ashamed of themselves. Consider the following example. A boss yells at his employee for making a mistake at work. That employee feels ashamed and frustrated. He goes home and sees that his house is a mess and yells at his son for not cleaning up after himself. His son feels ashamed and frustrated. He then finds his younger brother and yells at him for taking his book without asking permission. The younger brother feels ashamed of himself and because he has no one smaller than him to shame at home, he goes to school the next day and bullies a smaller kid. This is how shame operates. Notice how none of the crimes committed were the real reason why one person chose to shame another in this chain. Notice also that shame tends to be cowardly looking for weaker victims upon which to vent. This illustrates the deceptive nature of shame to both the shamor and the shamed. Each shamor cloaked his shame with the veneer of morality by accusing the shamed of a crime. From the perspective of the shamed, he will operate under the belief that if only he did the right thing he would not have to feel ashamed anymore. But even a little bit of thought about shame will confirm that this belief is false. Shame lingers as long as a person buys into the notion that shame is a legitimate moralizing principle.

The answer must be to reject shame as a moralizing principle because it simply is not. When a person rejects shame in this way he will begin to notice an awareness of the dynamic of shame and a compassion for the people deceived into thinking shame is a necessary force for good. In the example where the boss shamed the father and the father shamed the son, no one in this chain was aware of their true motivation. With awareness, however, a person caught within the throws of shame who is about to pass their shame on to another person can catch themselves in the act. They can ask themselves if this is the right thing to do. That would be an act of true morality and responsibility.

Here is my challenge to the reader of this post. The next time you feel yourself caught in the throws of shame, stop yourself. Gain an awareness of your true motivations. Have compassion for the person you are about to pass your shame onto. Have compassion for yourself for most likely being the previous recipient of someone else’s shame. Know that shame has no compassion or awareness and the true shame of it all is that our society feels shame to be a moralizing principle when it is anything but.

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