What is the root word in responsible? Might it be “response?” We know from various noted references that the construct of responsibility conveys a sense of moral obligation or accountability, usually, to another (or to oneself). However, what specific response is needed, wanted or required in order for a responsible reckoning to result?
It seems pretty obvious to me that responsible people always take full and complete responsibility for all requisite responses which, necessarily, must follow good actions and, especially, must follow bad actions, insofar, as it is in the resulting consequences of those actions which the doer is obliged to account for or, alternatively, to be reckoned with.
Consider an egregious misdeed which is unrepairable because no matter what the compensations, no matter how good and true the intent, the harm cannot be undone. What is to be done? Do no further harm? Intend to do good? Not blame the victim? Rationalize, justify or explain why the doer did wrong?
Some actions in life and within relationships are “once in a lifetime” occurrences and once done, cannot be undone. Murder, infidelity, treason, torture, rape, incest and robbery immediately come to mind. But what about stealing a pack of gum, telling a ’white lie’ so as not to hurt someone’s feelings or falsifying information on an employment application?
In fact, every single act we perform says something critical about our character. When we do right, presumably, we have acted in a manner which is responsible and, therefore, accountable. We have behaved in a meritorious way which indicates something positive about the strength of our character.
On the other hand, when we do wrong, presumably, we have acted in a manner which is irresponsible and, therefore, unaccountable. We have behaved in a non-meritorious way which indicates something negative about the weakness of our character.
Of course, I am making an, a priori, assumption that character is a good thing and that the lack of a good character is a bad thing. Those with bad character, poor character or deficient character may have little need to consistently and appropriately comport themselves in ways which are responsible and accountable since, usually, they are the center of their world; others merely serve a utilitarian and wholly peripheral role.
Those with good character, rich character or competent character have, moment-by-moment, need to consistently and appropriately comport themselves in ways which are responsible and accountable since, usually, they are very deeply and profoundly respectful of the prevailing standards, rules and guidelines of the world they reside within, they share their center with others and others are never, ever exploited, manipulated or used for any personal gain.
To act in a responsible manner, a response is required even if the response cannot undo what has previously been done. It matters not at all if the harm was accidental or unintended. No one can un-spill milk which already has been spilled. But it does make a difference to clean-up the mess and replace the lost milk, if possible, or die trying!
It is in the “die trying” part, above, which actually bring the actionability of responsibility for the commission of a harm into sharp relief because while it is reckless and foolish for anyone to literally die trying to fix what is broken and which can never be fixed in the way it was whole before it was made not whole, the idea is to do something.
At a bare minimum, that something is to accept responsibility for doing whatever caused the harm, apologizing if the victim will permit it and doing “whatever it takes” for as long as it takes, even if the victim never forgives you! Only in this fashion, will you have taken responsibility and accountability by your actionable deeds, thereafter.
Please understand that what I am talking about is not your forgiveness, pardon, redemption or absolution. Rather, it is about the debt you owe the one you harmed for as long as is necessary that the debt need be repaid, as defined and dictated solely by the injured party.
Yes, I realize my position runs counter to the prevailing societal wisdom, “if you do the crime, then you do the time” since time is not the crucial variable but, rather, what is done by the perpetrator during the passage of that time, specific to what is necessary that can be done, in service to the injured party, even if nothing can be done to repair the damage.
To be responsible is to respond to the one who was harmed and to do “whatever it takes” for as long as it takes, no matter what the outcome. Repair or restoration may never be possible to make whole that which was torn asunder. Still, one must do something, even in the face of the impossible!
I recall an anecdote attributed to the great scholar Joseph Campbell who told of a man frantically running for his life while being chased by an enormous tiger.
According to my version of the tale, the man found himself trapped at the edge of a steep cliff with a dead-drop. The tiger approached; certain death. The man stepped closer to the edge of the cliff; certain death. The tiger took a step closer, the man took a step further away; then he fell.
Instinctively, he reached out and grabbed some brush growing on the side of the cliff. He started to pull himself up and saw the tiger licking its chops; certain death. He looked downward at the dead-drop; certain death. Then, he spotted a berry growing on the branch. The branch gave way and he ate the berry.
Typically, when I share this story, most people inquire what happened to the man. He died! Death was an almost certain outcome given the particulars of his circumstances. Did he do anything wrong? Not, necessarily. Did he do anything right? Yes, as he was faced with an impossible situation and he did something affirmatively by choosing the berry... no matter what, he died trying to do what he could in the face of catastrophic adversity by choosing with responsibility.
The choice for each of us is extremely clear. Either we live our lives with responsibility and are accountable for each and every one of our actions or we live our lives without responsibility and are not accountable for each and every one of our actions and if, the latter is our choice, then who is really and truly responsible for our own words and our own deeds?
Author Note: Dr. Larry B. Gelman is a Clinical Psychologist and a Personal Mentor
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