Reflections on Personal Responsibility
The proverbial leopard cannot change it's proverbial
spots, but we love to hold people to account when they step out of line.
Are we responsible for our behaviour or is it a matter of genes and experience,
particularly childhood experience? We can all think of dictators and such
who were probably evil and the only thing to do was take them out.
I have no doubts about Hitler and there have been others since. But what about
the people I know. Among them one who has been in prison since 1975 who committed
four murders and another who has been in and out of prison all his life and
in between has been in an equal number of psychiatric hospitals having cut
himself or overdosed or swallowed razors. Both had poor childhoods,
both have or at least had difficult personalities. Both try to think and
plan for themselves, one with rather more success than the other. And a third
friend who would have ended up either dead or in prison without a dedicated
rescue mission. He is settled but struggling on the minimum wage and like
the other two doesn't really know how to be poor. Are these three worthless
and failures? and is it their fault? No! they are loveable, not least because
they make no judgements of others, except of course rightly judging
the pompous and the authoritarian. But
that does not mean they have no responsibility, instead they must take the
situation in which they find themselves and continue to try to make what
they can of it.
of privacy I cannot dwell on them or describe in detail other people I know who, especially as they
get older, become increasingly predictable. To what extent are they really
in charge of how they behave?
Not much, in many cases, but more because they fail to try than because of
their genes or their background or, indeed, their age. They have failed to continue to grow, failed to learn
anything new. They interact with their surroundings in the same old way,
seeing every experience through the same old filters and never have a new
idea. If they are in authority of any kind they follow the rules in the same
old way and in many areas of work this has been distilled into Procedures.
When accused of failing, for example in making a repair to the rail network,
their defence is that they followed procedures. And to put the matter right,
the procedures are modified. What happened to thought, experience and personal responsibility?
But I am reminded of a comment my old English teacher put on one of my essays at school: Try to find an alternative for "they".
Oh what an influence she had. In fact I strongly object to the idea of putting up
Aunt Sally's in order to knock them down. So instead let me follow a different literary tradition and address the readers directly.
If you are stuck in a traffic jam, do you merely fret
and fume or could you admire the scenery?, admire or otherwise consider the
merits and demerits of car in front and beside you?, sing? or even pray?
I mean real prayer for those around you rather than just in vain hope that
and angel might come and clear the jam. The last can happen of course, but
I am trying to make the point that we always have a choice in how we react
to life's frustrations. We can react as we always have, by habit, or
we can react in a new way, by applying our mind. Not all habits are bad of
course, it might be our habit to pray in a traffic jam. What matters is that
our habits are, first of all, known to us and secondly are under continual
review. Maybe we have a loving spouse, friend, relation or partner who will
make us aware of our habits, so that they can be reviewed.
We have always done it that way is an often repeated refrain of stale committees. What has been done before may well be best on the basis of: If it ain't broke don't fix it,
but it is sensible to review it with open minds. And how refreshing
when a new member of the Committee dares to question what is happening. As
individuals we need the equivalent of that new member as part of our consciousness,
to stand up to our natural inherited and conditioned stances and pose a gentle question: Is it time to change and do it differently? However
there is a danger that this "new member" in our thoughts might take over
and want to change everything. That is to be avoided but it brings us to
those in power.
To you in authority of some kind: Of course
you have to follow procedures and of course you have to take unpopular decisions,
but does that let you off your responsibility to be thoughtful and humane?
certainly not. Do not thank your underling for his work in one breath and
destroy his or her self esteem with the other. Almost certainly the underling
knows much more about the work than you do, so instead say
I am sorry but I cannot allow you to continue,
or whatever it is you have to say.
And make sure you have good reason to say it and can
defend your position
without claiming you are representing some committee or some higher authority.
There is nothing worse than what I call the Milk Monitor Syndrome, the one
who is always claiming Sir said .......
So we may have the equivalent of the leopard's spots which cannot change,
but let's jump on the leopard and take responsibility for driving it.
In other words: make sure it is the rational thoughtful part of our personality
which is always in control, rather than our genes or our learned habits.