Reflections on Personal ResponsibilityLeopard

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. 

For reasons 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 .......

Drive the Leopard 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.


Leopard Runs

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