A therapist friend mentioned to me that an awful lot of his male clients have a hard time taking responsibility for their words and actions that often lead to relationship breakdowns. The clueless men involved just seem to walk away from situations and people who were once keys to their happiness. They don’t bother examining the part they played in the sequence of events.
What is it that prevents some men from taking responsibility? With a 50% divorce rate and perhaps an even higher rate of break-ups of cohabitating couples, and a plethora of children who hardly, if ever, see their fathers, there is certainly enough responsibility to go around. Clearly the entire burden cannot be place on women’s shoulders; so what’s going on?
My theory is that men shy away from taking responsibility when things go awry because they confuse responsibility with blame. Blame is an ugly word; it implies that a person consciously caused the misfortune that befell him or another. So who would want to feel blamed?
Yet in nearly 35 years of pastoral work I have rarely encountered anyone who deliberately set out to hurt themselves or another. Rather pain is usually caused in the heat of the moment, when people are upset or angry. They have not taken the time to reflect, to be conscious, and to think through the possible consequences of their words or actions.
Blame is also a defining condition that is imposed on oneself or on another. Blaming is labeling. It is very unhelpful in the long run. It only serves to shame and degrade, as in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Responsibility is very different.
To be responsible means to take ownership of at least 50% of the situation and its outcome. Now, some of you may be thinking: But she IS to blame! He IS the one who started it! If x,y or z didn’t happen 30 years ago, I would NOT BE in this mess!
Well, I’m sorry, but that’s tough luck. Being human has never been easy. At least now we have a myriad of lawsuits instead of justice at the end of a gun barrel. The words and actions I use today are my responsibility. I have the ability to respond to the situation at hand. I can’t put the entire mess on someone else no matter how egregious the wound, how serious the fault, how cutting the remark, and yes, how abusive the experience. Even when I am victimized I am still responsible (unless emotionally impaired) to correct the situation for myself and not allow the victimization to continue, either externally or internally.
As adults we have the responsibility to take care of ourselves and those who are vulnerable and in our charge (ahem!…are you listening child abusers and sexual predators?). Though we and they may have experienced extreme behavior from another, we still have the power to be responsive as ethical and mindful adults. Blaming gives away our power. Being responsible takes it back.
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