Taking Responsibility – There is always a choice

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Image via Creative Commons, Pedro Ribeiro Simoes’s Flickr photostream. (Source)
Written on 9/13/2008 by Michael Miles. Michael is nearing addiction to personal growth, communicating, and increasing personal wealth. If you like him here, you’ll love him at his blog Effortless Abundance. Photo Credit: nick_russill

First, an obvious statement – there are a great many unhappy people in the world.

I warned that it was obvious. Many of these people have good reason to be unhappy: the death of a loved one, an accident, a great disappointment – all can have a deep impact on us. But there are other unhappy people who live comfortable lives, safe from privation and never having known great pain or loss. I know some of them. They seem to drag themselves through the days, and whenever they speak, they are complaining about something. Why are these people so unhappy, so endlessly negative?

I think it comes down to the notion of responsibility and the fact that happiness is, at least under ordinary circumstances, a choice.

Let me explain.

You cannot control everything
There are, of course, things about which you have no choice. The length of a day, the weather, the color of your skin. Maybe you grew up in a poor family and didn’t get many opportunities. Maybe you didn’t get a good education. Maybe your parents had problems and your childhood suffered as a result. Not your fault.

We all need to accept that there are things we have no control over, and I think the idea that (for example) starving people in African countries have ‘attracted’ this fate to themselves by some sort of negative thinking is, at best, silly and, at worst, offensive and dangerous.

But the list of things over which we have no control is surprisingly small, much smaller than many of us seem to realize. You shouldn’t berate yourself because of where you were born, whether or not you have good opportunities or your ethnicity. But you should take responsibility for most other things in your life. Research has shown that individuals who do so are more successful than those who see circumstances, chance or the people around them as having a significant influence.

You determine your response to events
The point is that you can control your response to events. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, said:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

This captures the essence of what determines our success and our failure, our happiness and our misery. As Frankl labored under the most extreme privation – starving, beaten, facing death at every moment – he chose to focus on something wonderful, a memory of his wife, and this let him to an experience of joy. Like St. John of the cross, experiencing joy even as he languished in a prison cell so small that he could neither stand nor lie down, Frankl discovered for himself that even the worst of conditions cannot destroy that basic ability to choose our experience.

These are very extreme examples, and it is unlikely that any of us would ever face such circumstances. But for this very reason we can be sure that we are pulling our own strings, that our life is in our own hands.

If you smoke, for example, you can blame the cigarette companies for seductive advertising (though less so these days); you can blame the fact that nicotine is addictive; you can blame your parents for making you think it was OK to smoke by setting you a bad example. You can abdicate responsibility by projecting it onto the society in which you learned to smoke, because ‘in those days, everyone smoked.’ All these things may be true, but they do not cause you to smoke. You are free to respond to these stimuli in any way you choose – you have chosen to be a smoker, but you can choose again.

Every moment is a new choice
The present is always fresh. There is always a new choice to make, and you are always creating your life again. No matter what has happened in the past – whatever habits you have developed, however deeply ingrained are your patterns of behavior – there is always scope for you to choose a new response.

It seems to me that people who fail in life are often the people who don’t take responsibility – there’s always something or someone to blame. For them, the list of things over which they have control is very limited. But successful people are not like this. They do realize there are limitations (well, mostly!) but their list of controllable things is very long. By and large, they regard success or failure as a matter of choice and personal responsibility. They don’t let mistakes hold them back – indeed, they will usually regard them as learning experiences and opportunities for growth
We are in control. We do have a choice. Some people – often the unhappy individuals amongst us – tend to blame outside circumstances for their failure, and they are upset (though perhaps not surprised) when those circumstances appear to conspire against them. They feel powerless and angry. The only antidote to such powerlessness is to wake up and realize that we do, in fact, have control over many, many things, and that our success or failure, our happiness and our experience of life are largely in our own hands.

Michael

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