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Responsibility: From Indictment to Empowerment

Do you often feel powerless to control the events of your life?  The quickest way to empower yourself is to take responsibility, yet many of us still flinch when we hear the word responsible.  It conjures up images of the scolding finger of a parent or teacher, pointed in blame.  “You’re responsible” meant that somehow you were at fault, you were to blame.

The word  responsible has various meanings, basically related to its Latin root, which means to respond.  One cannot escape connection with whatever one does; whatever one does thereafter is in some degree an answer to the earlier choice.  But this should not be understood to mean blame, which adds to responsibility a suggestion of criticism.

Responsibility implies that we are willing to accept the consequences of our behavior, willing to take the criticism when things turn out badly, but equally willing to take the credit when things turn out well.  Irresponsibility is attempting to abdicate our powers and being unwilling to accept the consequences of our actions.

All of us always do what we take to be our best at any given moment.  Our best is what we believe will satisfy one or more of our basic needs, needs that have become encoded in our genes because they have survival value; needs for belonging, self-worth, fun, and freedom.  Our best at any one time may or may not be the optimal performance of which we are capable.  An impartial observer might judge our best to be horrible, but it is nonetheless the best that we could see to do, given what we knew then.  With a different perspective, we might choose a very different behavior, or we might work at satisfying different needs.

If we are of sound mind, we are responsible for our actions.  No matter whether they turned out well or badly, even though they were the best we could see at the time, we are at this moment capable of discernment.  We have the power to act, to choose.  Blame and shame are irrelevant.  They refer to what is past, what is over and cannot be changed.  The only possible change, or action of any sort, is in the present.  If we decide now that we have harmed someone in the past, we can choose now to apologize or make amends, and behave differently from now on.  Blame and shame are negative emotions that change nothing of the past.  Their power comes from our dwelling on them.  Taking responsibility can change everything.

Not to take responsibility, not to use our power of discernment, is to make victims of ourselves.  Well-meaning people often respond to discussions about responsibility with complaints about “blaming the victim.”  But blame, as we have seen, is irrelevant.  Regardless of the past, the victim is responsible now because the victim has the power now to choose actions that can mitigate his or her plight.  And God is always there to help with those choices.

Author Jo Coudert once pointed out that, if I fall downstairs and break my leg in three places, it is irrelevant whether I tripped or you pushed me.  I still have to go through the therapy and learn to walk again: I am responsible.  Attempting to establish blame just distracts me from my task and fills me with negative thoughts that won’t help me heal.

Life has been compared to a trip down the rapids in a small boat.  If you behave responsibly, your hand is on the tiller.  You can choose which way to steer your boat.  Even if there are rocks in your way, you have some possibility of avoiding them as long as you exercise your responsibility.  If you behave irresponsibly, you do not steer.  You may even lie down in the bottom of the boat and moan about the possibility of crashing into the rocks.  To do this is to write VICTIM on your own forehead.  Consciously taking responsibility is using your power of choice. You have that power.  You are capable of discernment.  You have God’s guidance, if you seek it.

Responsibility is empowerment, not indictment.  The scolding authority figure from the past simply revealed its own limited range of behaviors.  If you determine that your best was not good enough then, you have the power to choose something different now.  You are literally a different person now.  Scientists tell us that nearly every cell in our bodies is replaced in a matter of months.  Some metaphysicians tell us that we are new every moment, that we are successions of selves, each lasting a fraction of a second, like frames of a movie.  God takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner, says Ezekiel, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live.  To turn from (Greek metanoia) is to choose a different direction.  Wickedness is a state of being bewitched, which is rather like being hypnotized in that the subject is not aware of the true state of things.  When we are no longer bewitched, like the prodigal son in Jesus’s parable, we come to ourselves.

New Thought teaches that there is no place where God is not.  God is always there for us to steer by, to get our bearings from.  We are responsible.  We are empowered.  We can choose our destination, steer for it, and make necessary course corrections all along the way.

Life is an endless succession of present moments.  At any present moment, we choose what we will retain from the past to combine with God’s perfect possibilities.  This is the process of co-creation, and all creation is co-creation.  We can choose to retain what we have learned from the past and drop the negative emotions.  As co-creators with God, we are responsible.  “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me”—with God’s help.