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Five articles taken from a discussion on the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders in the care of the environment

Who Is Responsible?

I was recently confronted with the question “Who is responsible?” My partner, T—, has a complicated health struggle and was in hospital for seven weeks. After four weeks some of the problems stabilized and the specialists wanted to send him home. My best thinking was that it was not yet safe. I shared my thinking, and as a result T— stayed in the hospital for a week longer. However, it was still not safe enough. I told the specialists that I did not want to take responsibility for T—’s health getting worse again, and I noticed confusion and worries on the part of the caretakers after bringing “who is responsible” to the table.

T— was sent home and we ran into* some serious mistakes with the medication. Again I confronted all involved, including the pharmacy, with, “Who is responsible?” After that T— stayed in a health-care center close to home for another two weeks. His condition slowly improved to where it was safe for him to continue healing at home.

In July I led a wonderful RC care-of-the-environment workshop ten kilometers from my home in Fryslân, the Netherlands. I was close enough to T— to be able to be quickly at his side in case of emergency. Things went well enough, and with our children helping to care for him, I could put my full attention on the workshop.

At one point in the workshop I talked about who is responsible and how much we try to escape from being fully responsible. We like to hold the government, companies, our boss, the church, the bank, teachers, our parents, industries, technology responsible for all that is irrational. Our societies are set up to make us confused about who is responsible, and as a result much of our rational responsibility is stolen from us at an early age.

I would love to have a discussion about who you think is responsible for things like your health, your life, global warming, litter on the street, classism, racism, and so on. I would love to hear any thoughts that might help us think about responsibility and how to discharge on preferring not to be responsible. If we become clearer on and discharge the distresses connected to responsibility, we might be closer to taking charge and ending all forms of oppression. Please write!

Wytske Visser
International Commonality Reference
Person for the Care of the Environment
Ljouwert, Fryslân, the Netherlands

* “Ran into” means encountered.

Separating Two Questions

I find it useful to separate the question “Who is responsible for creating this problem?” from “Who will take responsibility for solving it?”*

The first question is useful not for the purpose of blame but to be clear about the nature of the problem. For instance, it is important to understand that problems that feel like personal failures are usually the result of oppressive structures in society. It frees our thinking to understand the actual history of a problem.

Separating the two questions makes it easier to understand that anyone can take responsibility for fixing a problem and to decide if any particular problem is one we want to take responsibility for. It also makes it easier for people to take responsibility without feeling like they are to blame.

Aurora Levins Morales
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Responsibility and Accountability

Your posting on responsibility* reminded me of something a Co-Counselor wrote about a long time ago. She talked about the difference between responsibility and accountability. My understanding of it is that as human beings we are each responsible for (in charge of) everything in our universe but not necessarily accountable for certain things.

Accountability has to do with agreements we make with each other to divide the work, to think about and act on different aspects of the environment. One person cannot do it all in a limited amount of time, but a large organization of people can do a lot in that amount of time. So we assign resources, attention, and labor to different tasks, and we are each accountable for completing those tasks that we agree to. This has been a useful thought for me.

Victor Nicassio
Los Angeles, California, USA 

“Taking Responsibility for What Matters to You”

I, too, have been struck by1 how often people “try to escape from being fully responsible.”2 For example, people (especially government officials) often use the passive voice to avoid responsibility. They say things like, “Mistakes were made,” without identifying anyone who made the mistakes. I would prefer that they say, “X—, Y—, and Z— made the following mistakes.”

Politicians often use the passive voice for political reasons. Recently the U.S. President, Barack Obama, was quoted as saying, “Some folks were tortured,” in reference to the Bush3 Administration’s policy of torturing people. It would have been more accurate to say, “CIA4 officials tortured people during the Bush administration.”

About twenty years ago I started a project that funded ten teachers to take leadership at their school to improve mathematics education. I called these teachers “teacher leaders.” They objected to the term. They said they did not like to be referred to as leaders because leaders in their experience had acted without integrity and in oppressive ways. We had an interesting and emotional discussion. Finally someone said, “Oh, what you mean by leadership is taking responsibility for what matters to you.” That became our definition of leadership. It is not the same as Harvey’s5 definition (seeing to it6 that everything goes well), but it made sense to the teachers.

We have the ability to respond to any situation we care about. And, as Victor pointed out,7 we cannot do everything at once, so we need to discharge and think about how to allocate our resources wisely. I have found that to be challenging.

Julian Weissglass
Santa Barbara, California, USA

1 “Struck by” means impressed by.
2 See the first article on the previous page.
3 George W. Bush, the President of the United States from 2001 to 2009.
4 Central Intelligence Agency
5 Harvey Jackins’
6 “Seeing to it” means making certain.
7 See previous article. 

Choosing Responsibility and Getting Help

What an interesting question!1 I start from the assumption that blame is a useless concept. Putting attention on what others or we should have done in the past doesn’t encourage powerful thinking about the present and the future—though it can be a great way to start a session on early hurts!

If some individual or institution failed to be responsible and it impacted our lives, we get to decide on our attitude in the present. Options include challenging the individual or institution, opening space for apologies or reparations, doing the job ourselves, and gathering help to get the job done.

I don’t think I’m the only one who has trouble discerning what is fine to carry on my shoulders and what is unrealistic, or too much, or not mine to carry. I’ve been noticing the importance of having the ability to choose. Recently when I had just completed years of work in a leadership position, a whole group of people assumed that I would take leadership in another place, because they knew I was capable. I was mad at that assumption and resisted.

After several months of stubborn resistance, I realized that I actually had a vision for that group, very different from how it had functioned in the past. I saw that I was in a position to give a gift that had value to me, and I offered to take leadership if the group would join in my vision, which they did. Now that I have freely chosen the responsibility, from a position of power, my whole attitude about the work involved is completely different.

There’s a lesson here about choice, about taking off of our shoulders the responsibilities that don’t belong there (that were put on us by others when we were young, or taken on2 because there seemed to be no other choice) and taking on3 what we choose in the present, based on our best thinking, our abilities, our love, and our vision for the future. I’ve had some useful sessions on what is from my childhood and what is in the present, and I’m getting a little clearer.

Sometimes we find ourselves with too much on our shoulders in the present and no way to refuse to handle it. In these situations, another big lesson is about getting help. That was often the key missing ingredient when we were young, and I would guess that many of us struggle with responsibility because we can’t imagine getting enough help.

For example, when faced with a bureaucracy that is demanding something difficult of me, I find myself trying to avoid the responsibility (not even opening a letter, for example), because I feel so helpless. I’ve recently realized that my feelings of being totally alone with the challenge—clearly from my childhood—are at the core of this response. I’m trying to hold the direction now, as soon as I recognize that familiar feeling, of reaching out to break the isolation.

The challenge for me is to keep discharging on early isolation and over-responsibility and to keep remembering that I have the power to make choices and get help in the present. I’d love to hear what other people are thinking.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

1 See the first article in this series.
2 In this context, “taken on” means assumed.
3 In this context, “taking on” means undertaking.


Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00