Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Responsibility and Control

How do you cope with a looming disaster that is virtually unavoidable? Someone recently asked me an equivalent question, and my first response was, "I try to make sure that if it happens, I'm not responsible." He thought I was just going to blame someone else. "It's not about blame," I corrected him, "it's about control: controlling what you can, and not accepting responsibility for what you can't."

I've addressed this issue in my writing, especially around the growing demolition of our planet's biosphere, and my role in it. In general, I come down on the side of accepting responsibility for whatever I may have done, as well as its direct and indirect consequences. As a result, I try to be very cautious and conscious, though – I'm the first to admit – not enough so.

Because I also value commitment, I've applied a lot of that caution to choosing who and what I will closely associate with. It takes a lot to break those bonds, even when I discover that I've chosen poorly. If there's any hope of keeping disaster at bay, I'll fight to do so ("Never give up!" is one of my favorite sayings). There is, however, one major exception: when it becomes clear that fighting will only make things worse. I'm not so narcissistic as to think that I'm the best person to solve every problem – or even most of them. As with everyone else, there's a limit to what I know and what I can do, contributing to the risk of causing more problems for every one I try to solve.

Sometimes it seems like the best I can say is that at least I care. The people I least respect are those who don't care about the impact of their actions, rationalizing the consequences away as the price of pursuing the equivalent of "virtuous self-interest" (one of the most horrific oxymorons I can think of). When pressed, they point to competition, appeasing their consciences with the notion that if everyone tries to serve themselves, then the "winner" deserves what he or she gets – and, conversely, the "losers," pretty much everyone else, deserve what little they get.

Many disasters caused (or not averted) by people are, in my opinion, due to an unwillingness to take responsibility for the negative consequences of actions or inaction. Responsibility, which tends to manifest personally as a modification of our self-image based on what we have caused to happen, is a motivation for exerting as much control as we are able, without causing conditions to get worse.

It is possible to take too much responsibility, assuming that our impact is greater than it is. This is a sure path to either depression (for the bad things) or unjustified euphoria (for the good things). Therefore it must be tempered by honesty, with ourselves and with others, and a healthy dose of testing with experience to see what our impacts really are. This approach has helped me personally to back away from extreme stress caused by my growing awareness of the damage done by my lifestyle, acknowledging what I can't (and couldn't) control, while looking for ways to use what knowledge and power I have to make things better.