“Neurons” Meta Reflections 2015 #39
September 7, 2015
Creating Response-Able Persons #4

Is there an art in living a responsible life and stepping up to taking responsible actions in one’s life? There is certainly a strategy— the strategy begins with identifying, accepting, owning, and embracing your powers (Meta Reflection #35). It also involves recognizing the seductive power of irresponsibility which seems to trap so many people (#38). Here the strategy of what to do, and the knowledge of how to do that begins to blend into the art responsible living. First comes the understanding and knowledge that requires learning to recognize and avoid the irresponsibility seduction. At this point, you develop the competence of resisting blaming— blaming life, others, government, parents, history, human nature, and on and on. And this arises when you have learned and actually practiced stepping up to develop your innate powers.

A story. This week I received scores of emails which were sent to the HOA (Home Owners Association) distribution of 30 home owners in my neighborhood. Those of us on the board had discovered that we had several unexpected expenses with the water system, the pump house, etc. and so we went out a letter inviting a full neighborhood meeting. In response to the problem that we identified, three of the emails came back, hastily written, full of blame, accusation, and threats. The three blamed the builder, two of them threaten legal action, and the other was very “preachy” shouting about how stupid all the rest of us were, unable to understand things, and guilty of fraud! “It stinks of fraud” one home owner wrote.

Now being on the board and having 7 hours at the Houston airport … I responded to each of the three persons who were heavily infected by the virus of blame. I framed my responses that we all need to have calm and reasonable minds as we addressed the problem and that the task before all of us was to first gather information about the facts before jumping to conclusions. It all started when the president of the association sent out an email asking for $100 from each home-owner for some additional expenses that arose. You would have thought he had asked for $10,000 given the intensity of the accusations, blaming, and insults by three of them! Several pipes had broken and were repaired and the cost was an expense to the HOA and whether anyone agreed with the cost or the problem, the bill was ours and had to be paid. As a legal entity, that’s just the way it was.

But the emails were full of charges of “abuse of power,” “it’s not my problem,” “I didn’t agree upon the person who did the repairs,” “how much longer do we have to put up with this incompetence?” “It stinks of fraud.” This is what I decided to respond to. It wasn’t that I wanted to use email to establish the facts of the case— that is scheduled for a meeting at the end of the month. I mostly wanted to call attention to the process itself. I wanted to make the point: If this is the way we solve problems, nothing will be solved, we will just have a shouting match.

Did that resolve things with the three blamers? No. Instead one decided that I had “lectured” him about being cool and collected and who was I to do that?! Another wrote numerous mind-reading statements saying that I wanted to intimidate them to be quiet and not express their opinion. Another charged me with trying to manipulate the upcoming meeting by forcing people to take turns and not talk over each other— “That’s pure manipulation” he wrote.

All of this made me reflect on the theme of what is the Art of Living Responsibly? Here’s my reflection so far: I think the art comes in from one’s character and one’s state. Responsible people know and quickly acknowledge when they make a mistake. They say so. And depending on the circumstances, try to make things right. Living responsibly means recognizing that we have responsibilities that are both personal and social. As a social being in multiple social contexts, how I conduct myself means making responses in both dimensions.

The art of living responsibly also includes challenging and confronting. Are we really responsible when we let bullies or big-mouths intimidate people? Do we not have the responsibility to help create a context or culture where we can bring out the best in each other?

In the midst of the flurry of emails, five of the home owners chimed in. Four were very polite and validated the points I was making about being respectful. One, however, “yelled” at the three blamers accusing them of being loud and throwing an adult size tantrum. He “yelled” on the email by writing in ALL CAPS! AND USING BOLD AND EXCLAMATION MARKS WHEN HE REALLY WANTED TO MAKE A POINT! I wrote him privately thanking him for his intention while pointing out the contradiction—“You are blaming them for blaming.”

Two others wrote to me, saying that they appreciated my courage to stand up to the neighbor who had threaten to sue just about everybody in the neighborhood. But ask, “Are you afraid he will sue you?” When I asked, “Are we not responsible for the quality of conversation in our community?” he acknowledged that, “well yes, but…” And then proceeded to say that he was not the kind of person to do that. He would prefer a low profile.

All of this speaks to the subject of the art of responsible living and how we hold ourselves and others responsible for our actions. Some seek to escape from responsibility, some are irresponsible and blame everybody and everything else for problems (real and imagined), and some passively accept responsibility but out of weakness, not strength, others accept and own responsibility as a matter of duty, and others see response-ability as a resource and a means of changing the world. I want to be increasingly more in that last category. How about you?

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.