Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Are we responsible for whatever happens to us?

All human beings have some measure of control over their lives.  We make a big deal of accepting personal responsibility for our lives.  I happen to be one who often has made a point of selling the notion of personal responsibility for what happens to us.  But things of late have conspired to make me reconsider what I've been saying.  There's a famous saying that appears frequently in self-help groups:

God (as I understand him) grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The significance of this, as I see it, is that many of us suffer needlessly by accepting the blame for what happens to us as a result of things that are outside of our control.  When I started smoking cigarettes many years ago, I rapidly developed a 2 pack per day habit.  I knew that cigarettes weren't good for me, but nicotine is an insidious, addictive drug and I found it difficult to break the habit.  Eventually, I quit for good, but after my years of dependency, I realized that I couldn't control the drug at all.  If I smoked one cigarette, I would smoke 40+ per day.  I know people who can smoke one or two cigarettes per day (or even less).  For me, though, I know just what would happen if I picked up another, so I've remained cigarette-free (since 1972).  My only way to control it was to abstain completely.  For some reason, having utterly nothing to do with my personal responsibility, I'm unable to control a nicotine addiction.  It's apparently an affliction with which I was born. Similar things can be said for drug addiction, alcoholism, gambling addiction, and so on.  Some people can drink or gamble in a controlled way.  Others can't.  There likely is some genetic explanation for that difference that would be outside of anyone's control.  It's not simply a lack of personal responsibility!  Almost anyone who tries cocaine or methamphetamine becomes addicted, so I understood clearly that I should never, ever try it (or a number of other things), even once.

There are other things that happen to us (or fail to happen, as the case may be) that are outside our control.  Many people can't control their weight properly, for instance.  Some of those who are able to do so often look with undisguised contempt at overweight people, thereby reinforcing the overweight person's perception that being overweight is simply a matter of laziness or revealing a lack of personal responsibility.  This attitude reinforces the self-loathing that many such people feel, almost certainly making it even more difficult to take steps to fix the situation.

And some of us, through no fault of our own, have found we have a debilitating physical condition (such as cerebral palsy - CP) that many people find disturbing or even disgusting.  As it turns out, I know a number of people with CP and have come to recognize their outward manifestation is very different from the person trapped inside that damaged body.  Aphasia resulting from various problems can create the impression that someone is stupid or ignorant.  It turns out there are many debilitating disorders, such as fibromyalgia, that have been seen in the past by many in the medical profession as a form of self-delusional weakness, but which slowly are coming to be recognized as real disorders and very much physical, not mental.  However, the sufferers still are viewed by many with that undeserved contempt.

It's been my observation that many women see themselves as ugly or even repulsive because their bodies don't match the "cover girl"/"Barbie doll" look.  They engage in all sorts of complex treatments to improve their self-image (botox, breast implants, etc.) and spend a fortune to buy a seemingly endless array of products to cover over their "imperfections".   Whole businesses have sprung up to prey on this self-imposed lack of self-acceptance.  And body image discomfort is not restricted to women!  Many men have an obsession about their penis size whenever it's not big enough to qualify as a porn movie star!  They cover up for this with puerile false boasts about the size of their "tool".  Just for the record, I don't have a particularly large penis - porn movie producers won't be beating a path to my door.  It seemed to work just fine for the specific tasks it was intended to serve, though.  Why should I be reluctant to admit a condition that was entirely outside of my control?  Does it diminish my image?  As time has passed, I've come to recognize the foolishness of being concerned about such things.

We humans seem inclined to fail to follow the wisdom of the old saying I mentioned above.  We should absolve ourselves for the responsibility for things we don't control, while at the same time working to do something about the few things over which we do exercise control.  It's not our fault but we have a personal responsibility to ourselves to make the most of what we do have, rather than dwelling on what we don't have.  There are people who can and will love us and appreciate us for what we are, not caring about what we're not, if we just let them.  Learning how to recognize the difference between what we can and can't control usually takes time and experience, unfortunately.  We shouldn't let the negative attitudes of the ignorant cause us to doubt ourselves.  Whatever our failings and inadequacies, we each have something valuable to contribute, and that we can control!


Heather said...

Well stated, sir. :) And thank you.

Matt Graves said...

Thank you for posting things like this. This post in particular made me laugh (the comments on penis-obsession) and then made me think about things differently (we shouldn't doubt ourselves because of the opinions of buffoons but should contribute what gifts we do have). A lot of the stuff you "rant" about, I struggle with on a daily basis as a college student who started way too late and has a number of things beyond my control, which I generally DO feel responsible for - and terrible about. I seem to remember reading that you dislike sycophants, but occasionally praise is genuine, and here, it is certainly deserved. I'll put it this way . . . when Jon Stewart had Kurt Vonnegut (who is up in heaven now?) on his show, he said, "This guy made my adolescence bearable." Well, to some extent, your blog posts have made all the insanity of college more bearable for me . . . but this one in particular, at this particular point in time. I'd even say it was "inspiring" . . . and there are precious few things I can say that about anymore.

So . . . thanks for keeping your dissenting voice alive. It does make a difference.

Chuck Doswell said...

Footnote to this post: some recent events have brought to mind something to keep in mind with regard to this blog. If you have an affliction that is beyond your control, you need to do something about that situation! Although your affliction may well be beyond your control, you are still responsible for what damage you may cause as a consequence of that affliction! When your problem causes pain and suffering in other human beings, you don't get a free pass just because you have a problem beyond your control! You must seek help to get it under control or face the consequences for whatever damage you do!

Chuck Doswell said...

Matt, I couldn't be happier that this blog has brought comfort to someone. Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know!!

Chuck Doswell said...

HL - please include your last name in comments! Thanks!!

Roger Edwards said...

Catching up with your BLOG, I see several though-provoking entries. Thanks, as usual, even for some with which I disagree. In this case, I'll pose not a dichotomous agreement or disagreement, but a position from slightly off to the side on the same spectrum.

Once those addictions take root, they're extremely difficult to deal with. As you noted later in your postscripts, however, the addict *still* is responsible for doing everything necessary to rid themselves of the problem, and for they damage they do. I never have been an addict myself (more later), and as such, can't relate directly except as an example of self-restraint. But I do know what I've read and been told regarding how to handle it right, over and over, by those who *have* conquered the beast:

1) Prevention: You didn't address this, Chuck, and in doing so, did a big disservice to the problem. The message is straightforward: don't get involved with addictive behaviors to begin with. Self-discipline, and yes, self-denial, all work and work well, when one takes a stand and stubbornly sticks to their principles in this regard.

I can speak just for myself here, in that I never drank, nor used addictive or illegal drugs, nor smoked cigarettes--despite (and likely because of) growing up in the inner city where these all are major problems. There's no way to know if I am an alcoholic or other kind of addict, because I have consciously and deliberately chosen to prevent the *first* instance of each behavior. I can say reasonably confidently that I'm not a gambling addict; I gambled on several occasions in my teens and twenties, experienced the temptation to go beyond means but squelched it, ultimately got disgusted with the whole scene, and never did it again. I can go in a casino without any urge to gamble.

Look around. We are bombarded with harmful messages all the time, from every direction. The world of corrupt, greedy and selfish humanity (mass media, advertising, celebrity examples, even peers) tells us we are entitled to have it all, and have it now. Bullshit! We *want* the fame/fortune/adrenaline rush/chemical high, we don't *need* it and we most assuredly aren't entitled to it. It's a powerful, insidious and often diabolical message from the world. That said, the fact that there are people who have ignored and/or overcome that message proves that it is possible, that it can be done.

Addicts who have it under control overwhelmingly testify to this: they wish they hadn't taken that first hit, put that first cancer stick in their mouth, smoked that first rock, snorted that first line, spun that first slot, drank that first shot. What does that say?


Roger Edwards said...

Continuing (thanks to 4096-character comment limit)...

2) Support: This ought to be another no-brainer. You (Chuck) did touch on this, so I won't, except for the benefit of the religious or questioning in your audience--to iterate that one message of God is of recovery, redemption and finding a way out. Even if you (generic) didn't prevent the problem, you're still not doomed to the hell of addiction. A hand is being offered to you and you need to take it. Salvation isn't just some ethereal concept for the soul, it's for *this* life too; and numerous faith-based or faith-affiliated addiction programs with a record of success do exist all over the country. Faith-based support is a major resource at hand for those who want out of the torment of addiction. Any experienced pastor worth his position has dealt compassionately with the addicted in his/her flock many times before, knows where some practical help exists, and will be willing to guide one in that direction. Taking advantage of such help, of course, is up to the addict, which brings us to...

3) Personal responsibility: Everyone should be held responsible for his/her behaviors--even those committed under addiction. We can't control temptations. They happen, most often at the moments of greatest vulnerability.

For those who are not religious, substitute "addiction" for "devil" in the following words. The concept is the very same. "The devil made me do it" is not a valid legal or ethical defense, and is inaccurate anyway. No (generic "you" here)...the devil tempted you. You *chose* to follow.

The drunk who killed Andy G recently paid the ultimate price. Two lives were lost needlessly because of the chosen behavior (driving drunk) of one of them. Alcohol abuse is a big deal. The same can be said for drug abuse that leads to impairment, lost productivity, DUI, etc.

Back in 2000, my kids, ex and I easily could have been killed or maimed for life by a driver stoned out of his mind on meth, who ran a stop sign at 50 mph and t-boned us. Only 2-3 feet of distance (a fraction of a second at his speed or mine) made that difference. Alcohol and drug abuse are not "victimless" crimes. Gambling addictions aren't "victimless" either. There's a reason pawn shops sprang up near the Kansas City river casinos when they opened in the early 90s, and crime rates rose in nearby areas.

They all rip apart families, destroy finances, and can lead to crimes of theft, domestic abuse and worse if left unattended. These problems cost us all, even if we haven't been hit directly by those actions.

I've known addicts who did only the token minimum for show, to *portray* that they were taking action. One would take all the prescribed pills and go to all the therapy sessions for her assorted addictions and diagnosed mental disorders. [At least, until the therapists started telling her things she didn't want to hear regarding personal accountability...] She would loudly advertise her facade to anyone who knew of the situation, and many friends and associates thought she was fine. Alas...

Pretension doesn't cure addiction! Instead, it is a method of hiding from the problem and excusing one's own inexcusable level of inaction. In her case, pretension, as a form of dishonesty, only reinforced the bad thoughts that led to still more bad behavior. She was living a lie. She still *chose* to place herself in the very situations that led to the misbehaviors. As you can guess, she relapsed, over and over, even after losing her marriage and custody of her children. She only is alive and (for now) under control today thanks to some "scared straight" and near-death type experiences later, and to being held accountable by therapists/mentors in watchdog roles.

Ultimately, we are responsible for our choices. What we do when others aren't looking is the truest measure of character.

Chuck Doswell said...


I see your addiction to prolixity continues. I expected you to respond to this essay, and in a predictable way, and it seems my forecast, unpublished though it was, has verified.

That you've eschewed any use of alcohol or other drugs and managed to resist compulsive gambling for your entire life is, of course, to your credit. However, your comments could lead someone reading them to conclude (correctly) you can't possibly empathize with anyone who has succumbed to any of the various addictions that plague us. Thus, your position seems to be that of someone who considers those who are subject to these addictions as morally inferior and of a particularly weak-willed character, irrespective of your intentions. Your implied moral superiority and your simple solutions aren't going to be of much help to those not so fortunate as you seem to be.

What you call "faith-based" support programs have a very liberal interpretation of "faith" and so are not mere vehicles for pushing religion onto their participants. They're about helping addicts overcome their situation. I also recommend them to those who need such programs - the hardest part for the addict is to admit to themselves they can't control their addictions without help, and to seek a real solution to their problem.

I added the footnote because I agree that people must accept responsibility for their choices. But I think most of us have weaknesses that make us vulnerable to one or more addictions. If you're blessed with no such weaknesses - well, you must indeed be special! For myself, I'm not so inclined to make self-righteous judgments of others as I used to be. They are indeed responsible for what they do, but it's not for me to judge them.

I maintain that these addictions are victimless crimes - but they can lead the addict to commit criminal acts that are perpetrated on innocent victims. I doubt you'll agree with this distinction.

Roger Edwards said...

Inferential this, implication're putting words in my mouth. Don't. I said what I meant and meant what I said, as always, with nothing "between the lines". Lord knows I didn't need to write *more* words anyway, given your judgment of my proclivity for prolixity. :-)

I used myself as an example of prevention out of nothing more than first-person familiarity, and to prove that, yes, it can be done. There are many, many others; I have no monopoly on abstinence. The world needs positive examples, right?

Empathy: If I had none...if I thought, for example, that addicts universally are a bunch of weak-willed wussies, would I recommend they get needed help, and go to the trouble of specifying one avenue for it (faith-based programs)? Not a chance. I'd pull a General Patton or Vince Lombardi and say, "Suck it up and quit it, you &^$*#%! pansies." Now that might work for *some*--but I'll guess a tiny minority, at most.

Also, you speak of "simple solutions" as if there's something wrong with that. If getting help is an oversimplified concept, I'd hate to see what you'd call suitably complex. Addicts don't need complexity, ambiguity and nuance. They need a straightforward pathway out. To succeed, it's not just an option---but instead, imperative--to take *full* responsibility for one's own problem and behaviors in order to overcome them. This isn't me talking, it's every stabilized addict I've met. I've known more than a few, so this isn't coming from a vacuum of ignorance born of my own inner inexperience.

A two-part question: Do you think a bonafide alcoholic deserves less criminal penalty for the very same drunk-driving crime as one who is not an addict, who got hammered for the first and only time in his life before taking the wheel? Why or why not?

Chuck Doswell said...

I put no words in your mouth - I just suggested how they could easily be interpreted - as noted, regardless of your intentions.

Empathy is associated closely with shared experience. Since you're apparently immune to all such things, you can't have shared an addict's experience. Sympathy and empathy are quite different.

Suggesting abstinence is a simple "cure" offered by some, without any suggestion of how this might actually be accomplished by an addict in reality. Programs and support are needed.

I'm going to decline to respond to your 2-part question - it's off-topic and I don't want such a discussion to clutter up this thread. But you're free to guess my response ...