On Self-Responsibility

Once upon a time, an emperor was asked to sign off an execution order of 189 criminals.  Before doing so, he decided to visit the prison and asked them what was their last dying wish.  It was right before new year.  All prisoners on death roll wished they had a last chance to say goodbye to their family members.  It was impossible to grant their wish by bringing all of their family members to the capital city.  Instead, the emperor had a crazy idea – send the prisoners home and ask them to return at a specific time before the execution.

Expectedly, all people both inside and outside of the palace thought the emperor was out of his mind.  But he insisted and told the prisoners that he could grant their wish only if they keep their promises.  Naturally, all of them said yes and soon took off.  On the agreed time and day, to most people’s surprise, all prisoners returned except one.  A few officers in the palace started to gossip: look, I knew that, they wouldn’t all come back. However, about an hour later, a horse carriage brought the last prisoner back.  He was late because he fell sick on the road and lost time.  It took him a lot of trouble to get a horse carriage.

What would you do next if you were in the emperor’s shoes? Here is what he did.  He pardoned and released all of these 189 prisoners.  Of course, it was based on the agreement that they would never commit a crime again.  In the emperor’s mind, a person who can keep his promise in the face of death is responsible enough to be trusted.  He was right.  His action won the respect of all citizens in his country which experienced great prosperity and social stability under his reign in the next 60 years.

Our lives are measured by how we take responsibilities, associated with roles that we play, as a father, a wife, a sibing, a teacher, an employee, a CEO or a politician. Responsibility is a topic that most of us already know or think we already know.  In some cases, it is true.  In other cases, it might not be true or not so clear.  We all know it is good to be responsible, but do we know what is inside and outside of our circle of responsibilities? The answer might surprise us. 

First of all, how important is it to be responsible? In fact, being responsible is the single most important quality we should look for when selecting friends, marriage or business partner and team member.  A chronically irresponsible person should be avoided whenever possible because he lacks the source of integrity and self-confidence, therefore, cannot be trusted.  And trust is the foundation of any relationship.  Nobody wants to make friends, start a business or work on a project with someone who has a track record of not honoring his words. Likewise, we would never put money in a bank that we know it cannot be trusted.

An irresponsible person most likely has these 3 attributes: a sense of entitlement, dishonesty and inclination of blaming others.  For example, in situations of shared responsibility, the irresponsible person will expect the others to do more work, pay for expenses for both, simply because the other person’s wealth, age, social status, apperance or gender.  Only with a sense of entitlement, a person will make such assumptions.  Similarly, when a person makes promise that he never intended to keep, then that promise is a lie to begin with.  An irresponsible person doesn’t believe in accountability, he will always blame others, the dog or the weather for his negligence.  This is how things go down a negative spiral all starting from an irresponsible person.  This is true in friendship, marriage, business or relationship between politicians and the public.

To practice taking responsibility, we can pay attention to 4 areas: our thoughts, emotions, words and actions.  The first 2 are invisible and the latter 2 are visible.  Most of the time, we judge a person’s level of responsibility based on his words and actions.  Does he speak his words mindfully? Does he make baseless accusations or jump into conclusions about a person or an event without sufficient knowledge? Does he over promise and under deliver? Are his actions aligned with his words and the image he tries to project? All the time, a person’s words and actions give away information about his characters, values and integrity.  

While words and actions are important, the other two areas – thoughts and emotions are equally important, but are often overlooked.  In fact, words and actions are manifestations of thoughts and emotions.  This means our thoughts and emotions are the root cause of our words and actions.  How can we be responsible for our thoughts and emotions? Someone might ask.  This question may come from misunderstanding about how the mind works.  

Take the example of two-children talking loudly on a train and their father doesn’t do anything to stop them.  We get angry as a result.  We think that our emotion of anger comes from their bad manner.  But this is a misunderstanding.  The emotion is generated within us, not put into us by other people.  While we cannot stop other person’s actions, we can choose how we respond to it.  Here is the truth: how we RESPOND to any situation is always within our control.  Let’s give this situation a twist.  Suppose the children are loud because their mother just passed away and they are upset and anxious, which is why the father didn’t try to stop them, but choose to let them be.  Are we still angry? 

The reason we were angry in the first place is the result of our own thoughts – we assumed the children and their father were inconsiderate people.  It is our own thoughts that generated our emotions, not the situation outside.  If we understand this, we can choose to change our own thoughts under most circumstances.  We would never again say to our spouse, friend or colleague “you made me angry.”  As certain as gravity, the idea of other people making us angry or upset or frustrated can never be true. 

Now we understand how important it is to be responsible for our thoughts, emotions, words and actions. The next question is how do we practice it? The answer is being mindful and accept our own responsibilities fully.  In addition, it is critical to be mindful about the boundary of responsibility.  As human beings, we have a tendence of avoiding our own responsibilities yet taking on responsibilities that are not ours.  For example, attempt to change others.  Is it even possible?  The irony is, how much we want to change others is proportional to how hard it is to change ourselves. The harder it is to change or accept ourselves, the more we want to change others.  When we focus on taking our own responsibilities, we leave others to take their responsibilities. Even if we want to support others, the other must be willing to receive. Everyone has his own journey, lessons to learn and at his own pace.

Another example is our inclination to be responsible for how others think or feel.  If we fail to meet others’ expectations at no fault of our own, we feel guilty and the urge to make up to it.  For example, we cannot attend a friend’s birthday party, then we go out of our way to explain or compensate to make sure that friend isn’t upset.  As we already know, her thoughts or emotions are created by her and is fully her responsibility.  The more we take full responsibility for our own thoughts, emotions, words and actions, the less we feel responsible for others.  

The bottom line? Be clear of what is and isn’t our responsibility. If yes, then be responsible.     

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