Saturday, April 30, 2016

Personal Responsibility and Personal Time


It might seem strange to write about time from the point of view of responsibility, but that is what I will attempt to do.

A person's sense of self has a direct relationship with their past and how that past is remembered. Who you are is the sum of your past behavior, past events, past achievements and failures.

People who avoid taking responsibility have a problematic relation to their own past. I don't believe that most of them think they are lying -- they would tell you they just remember things differently. But this memory is often a bit fuzzy or distorted. To avoid responsibility they must blur the past, smudge the details because it is those details that reveal the truth. Consequently the sharp edges of reality are lost. And after many years, the ability to remember things with clarity is no longer available to them.

I have noticed that people who avoid responsibility have a kind of 'out of focus' memory. They often say things such as what occurred was "just an accident" or even more telling, they often say, "it just happened." Saying it "just happened" puts the blame on no one and makes an event appear to be out of anyone's control. It was just fate; it was just one of those things. Without realizing it they may also lapse into passive voice such as the famous Watergate phrase by the Nixon administration, "Mistakes were made." 

These people are not quite connecting with world we live in; they are keeping reality at arm's-length. In order to protect themselves, they deny any culpability. But they have, unknowingly, made a deal with the devil. If you don't take responsibility, then you cannot learn from your mistakes, and if you can't learn then you can't grow. So often these people are quite childish and assume it is 'adults' who are responsible but not them -- and I am talking about childish people of any age.

Oddly, taking responsibility is the best way to find true freedom. This is because you quickly learn after taking on tasks you don't like, what to avoid and what is worth committing to. And when you do eventually commit to something you like, through thick or thin, you may experience one of life's deepest joys. 

These irresponsible people are often intelligent and quite good at avoiding accountability. They instead blame their father, their mother, an abusive school, or an unfortunate upbringing for any failings. And while there may be some truth to this -- at some point every person who grows up needs to accept responsibility for who they are and take charge of their personality no matter what forces shaped them up to that point.

But the intelligence of non-responsible people, which could have been used to gain insight and wisdom, is instead, dedicated to making sure they are never blamed for anything. This takes a lot of psychic energy and further erodes their personality.

Also because they are so good at evading responsibility, they often assume others are doing the same. Since they blur reality, they are sure everyone else does too. So they can be quite difficult to deal with. 

They think they have gotten off scot-free but instead have paid a terrible price.

Quite simply they need to 'own' their actions and not tell themselves stories. Unfortunately I  believe most think they are telling the truth; I think that they filter (to use the computer phrase) their memory of the past so that it is to their advantage and after a while believe their own fictions.

In my experience I have found this lack of responsibility to be much more common than I would have imagined when I was taking psychology classes in college. For example, I suspect it plays a role in most psychological Personality Disorders.

But there is another side to this issue. There are also people who take on other's responsibilities as their own. And often it is the responsibilities of these very same people I've been talking about. This is equally bad. A realistic view of the world requires that you be accountable for your actions but not for the actions of others. So this too is a distortion.

Ideally each of us, say in our late teens or early twenties, needs to find a balance: we need to take responsibility for our own actions and learn when to take on or not take on the burdens of others. Yet this balance can be learned at any age. This is not an easy or simple process, but it is essential for growth.

The psychologist Erikson postulated that there are eight stages of psychosocial development which are encountered at different ages. Each stage requires finding a balance. I would suggest that understanding responsibility would also fit with his concepts. 

Perhaps one of the best descriptions of irresponsible behavior comes at the end of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Here is the background for the following quote about a married couple, Tom and Daisy: 
Driving Gatsby's car Daisy accidentally kills a woman in a hit and run -- driving off quickly hoping never to be caught. Tom lets the woman's husband believe it was Gatsby who was driving the car. As a result the husband kills Gatsby and then kills himself. Then Tom and Daisy abruptly leave with no forwarding address or anyway to find them.

The narrator of the novel writes:  
I couldn’t forgive him  [ED: Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . .