Personal responsibility. It is something we start to grapple with as a child. And yet, there are many who seem to avoid it in life, instead opting to blame external forces for their own circumstances. I am not talking about children here. Or am I?
Recently we experienced an extreme weather event with high snowfalls accompanied by wind, low temperatures and fog. Working for the local authority in the resort, in a customer-facing role gave me the opportunity to observe how people behaved in these recent circumstances.
As a result of the storm, large vehicles with mechanical issues created road blockages. The consequence was the closure of one access road to the resort, leaving an alternative in the opposite direction. Some people chose this route, regardless of the extra travel time and inconvenience. Other guests chose to stay an extra night, in the resort.
In the midst of this weather, some people reacted to directives to take certain actions (for safety) with a “why should I?” response. They drove past barriers put in place to close inaccessible areas – and got stuck. They ignored signs indicating necessary vehicle safety precautions – and slid on roads. They had mechanical issues and were unable to move their vehicles for days.
People were upset, angry and frustrated about the delays and changes to plans. Of those affected, some blamed authorities – claiming responsibility for the consequences of their actions – was due to others. There were also a lot of critics and “experts” offering their opinions on what should have been done, notably with no responsibility (or experience) in the field.
Victims of circumstance or personally responsible?
The range of reactions and responses to things that happen to us can span from being a victim of circumstance to taking personal responsibility for how we act.
Victim mentality means a particular way of thinking prevails. This results in things like fault finding in others, avoiding responsibility for actions and seeing situations as unfair and affected by negative influences.
Taking personal responsibility means acknowledging and accepting being responsible for our own choices and the consequences of our actions. In other words, we determine our own feelings and reactions to events – whether positive or negative.
The power of choice
Choosing your perspective is powerful. This choice can be debilitating or empowering. Choosing to be a victim can be fraught with issues like dependency on others, hostility, anger or depression. On the other hand, choosing a personal responsibility mindset reflects more openness to trying new ideas and letting go of anger, fear, mistrust and insecurity.
Being able to recognise there is a choice in behaviour is the critical piece to acknowledge here. It suggests that there is a maturity required. This presupposes a level of self-awareness to be able to recognise your own behavioural responses in trying circumstances. Under duress we can all react in unpredictable ways. However, with experience we can also reflect on those events and our responses to them, review them and consider alternative actions in similar future events.
The importance of poise
We don’t get to rehearse for extreme events. In moments of unpredictability that result from these, how do we cope? How can we choose the mature, personally responsible actions to take? Why are some people able to do this?
I think the answer is poise. It lies in taking a moment to take in the information presented, and finding a balance in a response. It may mean there is some oscillation between emotions while we grapple with events and our reactions to them. We allow this to happen until we can re-find an equilibrium. From there, decisions can be made and actions taken.
I think this is best expressed in a poem by Rudyard Kipling that I will finish with here:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!