The ordinary understanding / orientation of responsibility
What is my ordinary, taken for granted, understanding of and orientation towards responsibility? I say that it is pretty much captured by the following definition:
- The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something.
- The state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something.
Is this a powerful place to stand? No. Who wants to be beholden to duty? Doesn’t duty show up in my world as a burden? A burden that is imposed on me by someone else? Isn’t some element of the burden present even if I say I have a duty to do X and not Y? Looking into this further duty is given/imposed upon me by some outside authority including religion and culture.
Then there is the territorial orientation towards responsibility. I particularly notice this at work where marking out territory and defending it can be and often is important. Often the orientation is something like “This is my responsibility!” where the hidden message is I own this, it is my business and I don’t want you involved. Or the orientation is that of “It’s not my responsibility!” Either way the orientation is territorial. And we use territory to assert ownership and exclude each other.
Who wants to leave himself open to blame, to criticism? I don’t, I really don’t, I absolutely do not look forward to being criticised and even when I criticise myself I do not feel good. Is it any surprise that many of us avoid responsibility and accountability as we wish to avoid being criticised, being blamed? Isn’t my first response, your first response, something like “It’s not my responsibility. It’s not my fault, I am not to be blame. So leave me alone, let me be.”
Werner Erhard makes a great point. Blaming does not work. Look there is spilt milk all over the floor. How is blaming myself, or blaming you help with the situation? No amount of blaming, responsibility pinning, is going to deal with the spilt milk. The appropriate course of action is to mop up the milk!
Self-help orientation towards responsibility
If you read enough self-help literature you are going to come across the notion of ‘responsibility as response-ability’. That is the notion that between the stimulus (that which triggers your response) and your response (to that stimulus) you have a window of opportunity to choose your response. That is you have the ability to choose your response.
Look into this deeply enough and you might just find that the phenomenon of stimulus-response is more complicated than that. It is mood dependant. When you and I are in the mood of being calm/relaxed then the window of opportunity is large enough to choose our response. On the other hand if you and I are stressed, pre-occupied, grappling with our stuff, then the response to the stimulus is automatic. Yes, we can unlearn this behaviour and it is likely that it takes many many hours of practice.
Werner Erhard: an extraordinary understanding / orientation towards responsibility
There is a radically different way of understanding and orienting oneself towards responsibility. An understanding and orientation that leaves one in a powerful position. Werner Erhard came up with and articulated this understanding.
The first point to make is that Werner Erhard’s definition/orientation is not a description of what is so. No, his orientation is generative. What does it generate? Possibility. And a powerful place to stand when it comes to how your lives have turned out and how they can turn out in the future. So what is Werner’s definition/orientation toward responsibility?
For any situation in our lives, in the world, I can freely take the stance: “I am responsible for……” as in “I am cause in the matter of…..”. And in taking this stand I move from showing up as victim of the situation, or simply a bystander looking on the situation, to being someone who declares himself to be a causal agent, someone who has a say in the situation at hand and how it turns out
Let’s make this real. I have been experiencing disappointment, frustration, anger, bewilderment towards one my sons and how he behaves. And we had a relationship that goes along with that: mainly one of ignoring one another. I was clear that he is responsible for his behaviour, I am not responsible for it. It is he who talks disrespectfully. It is he who leaves stuff lying around the house. It is he who walks into and all over the house with dirty shoes making a mess. It is he who picks on his brother and sister simply because he is bored. Standing in this ordinary orientation towards responsibility I was left feeling powerless, a victim of my son’s behaviour. And I was wondering how it was that a child that I lavished love and attention upon turned out this way.
My wife provided the opening for me to get present to and take Werner Erhard’s orientation toward responsibility as regards my relationship with my son. She simply told me that my ‘bad behaviour’ shows up in the absence of relationship. This got be present to taking the stance, freely/voluntarily, that “I am cause in the matter of my relationship with my son. I have contributed to what is so. And I have the power to influence how our relationship turns out.” With this shift in orientation, I led, I became the causal agent.
I asked myself the question, what is missing the presence of which will make a difference here in my relationship to my son? The answer was simple, spend 1 to 1 time with him doing what we both enjoy doing. And give up blaming my son. Since then I have been playing pool with my son several times a week, we have gone to the cinema, we have played badminton and we have cooked together. Interestingly, I notice that mutual affection and respect is present. Two days ago my son said “You know Papa you don’t have to do so much for me, I know that you love me”.
Coming to grips with and living from Werner’s articulation of responsibility, as in the sense “I am cause in the matter of…”, is fundamental pillar of living an extraordinary life. This understanding, this orientation, allows me/you/us to move from a position of resignation (I can do nothing, I have to put up with life) to one of authorship/leadership (I have a say in how the situation is and how it turns out). And this shift from resignation to authorship/leadership/causal agent makes all the difference to my experience of living and your experience of living in this world that we co-create and inhabit together.