27 July 2009

Personal Responsibility

5 Facts:
  1. You always have a choice. Even if your choices are only crappy ones, you still have a choice.
  2. Choices come with consequences.
  3. Not all consequences are good.
  4. Not choosing is still a choice.
  5. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt.
I didn’t learn about personal responsibility until well after I graduated from college. My father died when I was young and my mother wasn’t so good at it herself and thus not a great role model. My siblings were all older by many years, but to her credit, my sister (closest in age but still 4 years older) I think occasionally tried to point out responsibility for actions, but I think she tried more by example, and me being so much younger couldn’t quite make the leap without explicit instruction. Needless to say, it wasn’t until I was out on my own, defaulting on my student loans, drowning in credit card debt, losing my driver’s license, and almost getting evicted from my apartment did the whole idea of responsibility start seeming like something I should become familiar with.

Recognizing my inherent luck, I did actually start figuring it out. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t without humility. Explaining wage garnishment to your boss is never a pleasant conversation. Handing the BMV clerk your certificate from Traffic School and proof of payment for the outstanding speeding tickets is embarrassing. Getting lecture after lecture from credit card companies as you’re trying to work out affordable payment plans for overdue balances is tedious. You become very practiced at admitting your fault and negligence and promising that you are trying to fix your mistakes. But I did it. I admitted making mistakes and started making a plan to fix those mistakes and start taking responsibility for my actions.

It might be because of these hard lessons that I tend to have little sympathy for people when they refuse to hold themselves accountable for their actions. It’s one thing to not realize you made a mistake, and for that, I have all the sympathy in the world, because, well, see above. But when these mistakes become apparent and you leave them as such and prefer to wallow in misery and complaining or just keep the status quo, that is when my sympathy ends. You have a choice. You always have a choice.

Sometimes the consequences are hard. Yes. But sometimes choosing to not make decisions leads to harder consequences. And sometimes those consequences lead to more decisions and more consequences. But you always have the choice. There is no other force at work destroying your life. You make the decisions. You decide. You.

People make hard choices every day. People decide to turn off respirators. People decide to undergo chemotherapy. People decide to quit chemotherapy. People decide to take second or third jobs. People decide to get sober. People decide to take medication. People decide to abandon their families. People decide to get divorced. People decide to swindle others out of millions of dollars. People decide to cheat, steal, and murder. And people decide to listen, help, and heal. People choose to try. People choose to give up trying. People choose. You choose.
And the only person to blame for your mistakes is you, because you chose. Maybe you didn’t know it was a mistake when you made the choice, but you made it. But the best thing is that you can make more choices, choices to fix the mistake, choices to lead you somewhere better. You get to make that choice. And there are always choices.

A class on personal responsibility should be a requisite before graduating high school. We learn cause and effect in physics, bull and bear markets in economics, and good versus bad in philosophy. But we never get that explicit lesson in how that relates to us. Just words on a chalkboard or characters in a book. These don’t work because we are real people. Real people making real decisions, with real consequences.

No matter what it is, it’s always about our own choices. I hope America can remember that and preserve that.


  1. No matter what it is, it’s always about our own choices. I hope America can remember that and preserve that.

    I'll have to respectfully disagree with that. I think the emphasis upon our "personal choices" is what breeds narcissism in today's culture. We like to fool ourselves into thinking that we are actually sovereign over our own lives. The "sovereign self" believes that the only ethic is that we make choices.

  2. I also respectfully disagree with you in turn. I think the narcissism comes from thinking that your choices should be the same for other people.

    My choice is my choice. What *you* think about my choice in no way affects my actual choice unless I so *choose* to allow it. And your thoughts about my choices should not, in any way, affect the actual options unless those choices, in some way, impose my will upon your person. Then you get to have a say.

    I choose to live with my boyfriend without being married. And I also choose to think that is just fine and dandy and makes me a good person. Whether or not you agree with my own interpretation of my choice in no way nullifies my belief about my choice. Nor should your belief about my choice take away my option to live with him without marriage. You can tell me I'm a sinful harlot until you're blue in the face, but that doesn't make it "true." Just as it doesn't make it "true" to you that it's OK to live with someone without marriage just because I am actually doing it.

  3. Your first statement in your response makes absolutely no sense because you assume that my criticisms themselves are entirely of self, which is not the case. My criticisms of your choices are based upon a transcedant moral order, not something I came up with on a whim. My objections are not merely subjective, but inherently presuppositional. You're letting your post-modern bias cloud the discussion.

    I fully understand the fact that you don't give a damn about what I happen to think of your choices. It's certainly true that what I happen to think in no way directly affects what you are going to do. I never doubted that you or anyone else has free agency to do such things. However, not caring what I think has nothing to do with whether my worldview is correct. I can deny that our judicial system exists until I'm blue in the face, but I still have to face the judge when I commit a crime.

    But even you don't believe that people shouldn't impose their wills upon others or else you would be a complete anarchist. You have no problem imposing an immoral system of taxation and welfare-state upon me and everyone else via socialized medicine, etc. In fact, doing so means that you're taking away my list of choices with respect to my healthcare options.

    In other words, you really don't believe in the "choice" principle consistently. You only support the types of choices which suit you personally. And you wanted to know where narcissism was coming from?