The challenge of responsibility

click to enlarge Robert Maurer
Robert Maurer

The dictionary's definition of responsibility is to blame or hold accountable. Our legal system functions reasonably well this way. If you went to a restaurant and slipped on a wet floor walking to your table, you might hold the restaurant owner responsible.

But outside the legal system, this definition of responsibility doesn't work. Human nature being what it is, we tend to blame others when we are not getting our needs met. It makes sense that if the only option we have is who to blame, it's less painful to blame the other. The problem is the other person is doing the exact same thing... blaming us for their frustrations.

But what if we could define responsibility in a different way, one that lifts us and, potentially, all those around us?

It's hard to problem solve when we are upset and the other person responds to our anger rather than the content of what we are saying. If we recognize our emotions are making us ineffective, we can potentially "cool off" and work to stay curious and compassionate. Taking responsibility for our own emotional response is a very, very tall order, but it's possible.

Then consider taking responsibility for improving the situation, even if it isn't your fault. If we blame others, we have no desire or need to find solutions. If there's a mess, let them clean it up! At very least, this is not a very interesting way to live and at worst, nothing improves. The human spirit is capable of rising above blame. Nelson Mandela did not cause apartheid but sought peaceful ways to end it.

If we view the challenging situations as classrooms where we can learn to take responsibility for our emotions — and to learn how to leave such situations better than we found them — then we are fulfilling the greatest human potential.

Robert Maurer is a Spokane psychologist and the author of One Small Step Can Change Your Life.

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