I am wrestling with something that I think is very fundamental to me understanding myself and reality. In some ways, it seems like the same old, same old–which is why I am reluctant to write about it. In other ways, it has the potential to be utterly radical, if I can actually leverage it to completely transform me. The more that I think about it, the more restless and nervous I become–the less happy I seem to be on the outside. But, I think this is because there is an old self, or thought pattern, or demon, or learned pattern of behavior, if you will, that is kicking hard against what I am finding.
The way to describe it could be “radical personal responsibility” — but, if you Google this phrase, you are going to get all kinds of New Age self help methodologies. Most of them seem to come close to getting at what I’m trying to get at, but none of them completely seems to get it. I think the problem is on one hand utterly simple and described by many who would seek to take your money and transform you for the better: I need to stop blaming others and outside circumstances for the things in life that make me unhappy and start examining myself as the root cause of what makes me unhappy. I am reluctant to take the idea of personal responsibility to such extremes as solipsism or utter masochism. Those are unhealthy, unrealistic directions. I do think there is an objective reality, there are absolute truths, there is such a thing as evil and the Devil and there is such a thing as a God of inifinite Love. I do think that many of the problems of the world are caused by others, and I am only to blame so much as I participate in the system instead of living outside of it. I don’t believe in taking on the sins of mankind because I believe that another man already did this.
However, I also don’t think that stating something like “take more personal responsibility for your actions” quite gets to the root cause of the matter, either. I think that there is an acute learned pattern of behavior that is at the same time comfortable in its familiarity and wretched in its destructiveness and ways in which it impacts me to an unhealthy degree. To wake up one morning and declare “I am taking personal responsibility for my actions henceforth” is a nice start, but I’ve done this many times only to fall back on old, well-known patterns of behavior where I am quick to fault others or circumstances for why I am unhappy, and slow to make any sort of changes to my lifestyle or way of being that might see me become happier.
What got me thinking about all of this again was a realization that I have placed too much emphasis on forces external to me as being the cause of my problems or even my successes and chosen to be accountable for my shortcomings in ways that tend toward the masochistic. In other words, I ignore practical methods to become a better person and try to make up for all of the times I should have been more aware of how I, myself, was impacting my life by being overly repentant of my sins.
The clear examples are the destructive swath I’ve taken in my finances and career choices. It has been much easier to pretend that one day in the not-so-distant future I will be discovered by someone important for doing something–writing, painting, making music, developing websites, etc. and that I will be propelled to great fame and fortune where finances will never be an issue again. I have continually thought that the next job I hop to would be the one where people really “get me” and give me the chance to shine–all because these particular people at this particular job environment happen to be so much more enlightened than all of the other ones. Meanwhile, I’ve ignored obvious steps to improve my career, like joining trade organizations, coming to meetings prepared with helpful suggestions, proactively setting up meetings with bosses and bosses’ bosses to make my voice be heard.
The actual act of facing a life where you really are responsible for everything that happens, and you are responsible for your outcomes, is a frightening act to step into. I am not discounting prayer and seeking guidance from God, so much as I am using God as a crutch or an excuse for why things aren’t going the way you’d like them to. If you pray to God, and God shows you how you can improve or do something differently in order to get what you are asking for and you don’t do it, then you are to blame for why you didn’t get what you wanted. If you pray to God for something that may not have been precisely what you wanted, but it seemed kind of nice or it seemed like it might make you happy, and God gives it to you but you decide that you really didn’t want it after all–then, it does you no good to complain about God never giving you the kind of life that would make you happy.
It also does you no good to decide that you want to do God’s will, and then take a month or two to imagine or conjure up what you think that should be, and then dash out and start trying to do it, only to find yourself rather unhappy about the kinds of sacrifices you have to make or some of the outcomes that would indicate you aren’t as validated as you’d hoped to be.
I still believe very firmly that God’s will for what I should be doing overrides my own will. However, I am not completely convinced that God isn’t simply trying to help me become the most happy, healthy and successful person I can be given my particular set of talents–and I keep throwing those talents away in the mistaken belief that God has a different set of talents waiting for me. In the parable of the talents, I wouldn’t be like any of the fellows described, but a new sort of pernicious example–one who wants very much to make the best use of his talents, except for the fact that he hasn’t been given the ones that he thinks he has. Or, I am the man who was given five talents and I keep trying to be the one who was given ten, thereby making me fall short at accomplishing tasks for which I am not equipped but also failing to do much of anything with the talents I’ve been given.
However, to get more closely back to the matter at hand, I want to again stress how most of my given mechanisms for behavior in any particular social situations are mostly auto-pilot responses that have enabled me to never completely put myself out there in full service of others, in full expression of who I really am–but, I am also putting just enough out there so that I give the impression I really am as fully engaged as possible. It helps me cover or hide a part of myself that I feel is vulnerable, and gives me the chance to always blame bosses, coworkers, family and friends for things not going completely my way. But, to be clear, I have perfected this unsatisfactory way of being such that I can at any time demonstrate just how much I really did try my best (but really just appearing to do so) while leaving room to be the victim when necessary (but without being so much of the victim that it becomes too obvious).
Why have I settled on such a way of being? I have my own particular mixture of laziness and fearfulness. I am too lazy to work hard enough to accomplish exceptional things and too afraid of sticking my neck out for fear of some kind of figurative chopping of it off. In reality, I am always being judged by others and rejected–it is clear from my overall lack of close friends that many people have come and gone who have determined I am not what they were looking for in a friend. All of the things that I have tried to avoid out of fear have come true, but I have pretended that they have not. As for my laziness–perhaps some of the laziness I have so heavily critiqued is just who I happen to be–in other words, I am simply not made to be the man who is running about town at all hours of the day attending events and meetings and trying to sit on a million committees and accomplish a million things. Where I have so heavily despised and criticized myself for not trying harder, volunteering more and standing up and speaking out more may simply be an act of participating in unrealistic expectations.
Or, to consider this slightly differently, it is easier for me to critique myself for things that I really shouldn’t be so critical about so that I don’t have to actually face the things that I should be changing.