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The surprisingly simple way to take personal responsibility

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'It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.' - Josiah Stamp


I am part of the problem of people dodging personal responsibilities. As if other people were responsible for our conduct. Hiding behind grievances, governments and histories. One example would be wasting energy talking about poor school provision. Rather than grieving its loss and focusing our energies on educating our own kids. In diagnosing this problem, I suggest 'we are self-creating or self-fashioning beings [and] in this sense we have full responsibility for what we make of our lives.' An existentialist philosophical stance (Guignon, 2021.) As Oscar Wilde said :


"We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell."


My emotions in writing this blog included sadness and anger that we struggle to take personal responsibility. This blog will detail ways to dodge, and take, personal responsibility. We begin with two of my favourite dodges.

Inaccurate views of self and procrastination


One way I can dodge personal responsibility is by having inaccurate views of myself. One part attracted to a narcissistic sense of myself. Seducing myself into believing I am more important than other people. So exempt from taking all my responsibility. Another part believes I am fundamentally worse than anyone else. So whilst some people say ‘if you [take the personal responsibility to] speak your truth, your tribe will be those who hang around.’ This part of me says ‘what if I speak my truth and no one hangs around?’ So I can avoid doing so. As if my actual self was unsuited for me to take personal responsibility.


I can also dodge personal responsibility by procrastinating. Ruminating, if only I wrote more, or thought more, or found the perfect way to be, then I would act. Choosing avoidance over hypothesis testing. As if any decision did not involve significant risk and loss. Instead, I suggest, we are already implicated in what happens in the world. A part of the mistakes, mixed bags and sound decisions that have already been made. In these ways, taking personal responsibility involves accepting that our actions will be imperfect. Another challenge to taking personal responsibility is brokering the fairness/loyalty trade off.


Fairness vs loyalty


Fairness and loyalty are both well established moral values. Which of these values we give priority leads to different conclusions about what is our personal responsibility. As adults we can consciously decide which action is most responsible for us. Guided by our moral code and our emotions. Whilst accepting that our actions may be viewed by other people as a betrayal.

'Betrayal is a terrible thing, but without betrayal there can be no development....In betraying someone (or something) one is protecting someone (or something) else. And that someone or something else may be – in fact is likely to be – of real value' (Phillips, 2012.)


In this way a perceived betrayal may be necessary for things to change. Uncertainty makes these choices even more difficult. Students of risk will recognise that the past is often the best predictor of the future but that the past is also often a poor predictor of the future. This means individuals may only discover which things are possible by trying to do them. Requiring the appointment of yourself as the authority in your life and becoming your own institution. So in taking personal responsibility, we also have to accept the consequences of our decisions. Both known and largely unknown ( Dungan et al., 2015.) The time frame of our thoughts can also affect how much responsibility we take.


Here and now


'If you spend too much time in the past you are going to get depressed and if you spend too much time in the future you are going to get anxious and the goal is to try to live in the present.' - (Group, 2021)

Taking more personal responsibility seems to involve responding to the challenges we face in the here and now. It can be irresponsible for us to overly indulge in condemnation about the past or fantasies about the future. Distracting ourselves from taking responsibility in the present. Instead I needed to learn and move on. Identifying my unconscious patterns and implicit biases. Making decisions after a reasonable information gathering process. In this way taking responsibility can be an opportunity to do something different going forward. That can become exciting instead of scary. How then to summarise what taking personal responsibility involves?


Decide how you want to be, then be it


I have learnt that taking personal responsibility is a judgement. A judgement we make and are accountable for. From this perspective life is a serious business. Our decisions are consequential for ourselves and other people. Whatever we do cannot be undone. At the very least, we have to live with and answer to ourselves. That will be hard enough. So if we are to take our personal responsibility. We need to habitually sense, then decide, the way we want to be, as individuals. Then act that way. As Auden (1927) suggests :


'A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep

Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:

Although I love you, you will have to leap; Our dream of safety has to disappear.'


References


Auden, W. H. (1927). Leap before you look. Collected Shorter Poems, 1957. https://web.mit.edu/cordelia/www/Poems/Leap_Before_you_look.html


Dungan, J., Waytz, A., & Young, L. (2015). The psychology of whistleblowing. Current Opinion in Psychology, 6, 129-133. https://moralitylab.bc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/DunganWaytzYoung_2015.pdf


Group. (2021, January 1). Booty call [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0tHswsB9Wg


Guignon, C.(1998). Existentialism. In The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor and Francis. Retrieved 12 Nov. 2022, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/existentialism/v-1. doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1


Phillips, A. (2012). Judas' Gift. London Review of Books, 34(1), 14. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v34/n01/adam-phillips/judas-gift


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