Jean stood in front of me to block my exit from her dining room. I had rented a room in her house during my second year of grad school. She said, “You told me that you’d call once you got to Pennsylvania. You didn’t.” I had just moved out after graduating from the University of Delaware to rejoin my wife in State College. But I had to return one last time to Newark, Delaware to clean up loose ends. Meeting Jean was one of them.
Jean demanded an apology. I didn’t remember promising a phone call, but my former landlord and part time art mentor was damn sure I had. I came up with a few excuses invented on the fly, and gave her a lukewarm apology.
She didn’t buy my routine. She gave me the following instructions instead: “When you’re wrong don’t explain and explain and try to weasel your way out. Just say you’re sorry!”
I took what she said with a grain of salt as she had never once acknowledged any wrong doing on her part in the two years I’d known her. She’d accused me of misdeeds I hadn’t committed, and had vented her spleen (at my expense) on a several occasions. She hated men as a matter of principle, and the best compliment she gave me was, “You’re not a man. You’re a person.”
But she never weaseled, justified, or blamed anybody else for her actions. She claimed them…
I’ve recently been reading about the Stoics, a group of Greek and Roman philosophers and statesmen, who believed in responsibility. They stated that there are few things that we can fully control beyond the choices we make minute by minute. They suggest that a person can become virtuous by owning the results of their thoughts and actions. Good individuals can elect, in the face of uncertainty and malevolence, to do what they consider to be right. They don’t blame circumstances or the influence of other people for their mistakes.
Psychological research tells us that unconscious impulses, biological drives, and social mores direct our behavior. In some ways, our personalities are products of heredity and cultural indoctrination. Our personal history, family traits, and worldly influences can be blamed for our misdeeds.
But we give up a lot of power if we take the escape route of passing blame. We cede control over our lives when we center responsibility outside ourselves. How can we grow into our best selves if we are nothing but puppets and victims of fate?
It’s easier to live as if we are puppets, of course, and being weak can be addictive. A familiar form of melancholy settles in when we accept the lowly and defeated state of our existence. But isn’t this a shadow life?
The only form of fulfillment we can gain is by taking responsibility for ourselves, by striving to see ourselves clearly and to make changes. Life takes on a new sense of purpose when we look at our circumstances as sources of challenges, challenges that teach us to be better persons.