Many of us unconsciously relinquish responsibility for our thoughts and our actions to other individuals or groups. Our beliefs continue to be the beliefs of our parents, our peers, or the collective identities with which we affiliate. Our social values mirror those of the political party to which we belong. Our cultural attitudes reflect those of our ethnic group. Our morality imitates that of our inherited religion. Our ethics match those of the corporate culture we work in. Our actions are guided by external forces rather than our core values, and are then justified using a variant of the mob mentality. Our beliefs and actions must be right because everyone we know believes and acts in the same way.
We blame others for our past and, by extension, whatever is wrong with our current life situation. Our notions of self-worth and self-esteem come from others. But others will not validate us honestly, nor is there any guarantee that any validation we receive will continue once it is bestowed.
Perhaps others tried to convince us that we were inadequate. Perhaps others repeatedly told us that we would never achieve much. Now we have developed powerful mental constructions that reinforce their opinions. Conversely, others may have built us up and convinced us that we would achieve greatness, and now we haven’t. So we tell ourselves how inferior we are.
To better our life situation and make any progress toward the future we imagine for ourselves, it is necessary for each of us to take responsibility for our own lives – our own thoughts, our own values, our own actions. We need to let go of whatever happened to us in the past, stop living life with anger or regrets over what no longer is, and accept personal responsibility for moving our own lives forward. We must realize that we are responsible for our own outcomes.
We cannot blame our current situation on our genes, our parents, or our stratum of society. Blaming others is a psychological crutch that we use to let ourselves off the hook for our own self-perceived shortcomings. Our parents were not perfect child-rearers. They were, after all, human beings. Our upbringing was not perfect. Our circle of friends, our social associations, most likely do not promote our best personal interests. Still, we tend to believe internally that others are correct and we are not, and that our inability to achieve whatever goals we have must be due to some inadequacy on our part.
Immanuel Kant described enlightenment as “man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity,” and he defined immaturity as “the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another.” He claimed that such immaturity is self-caused not because intelligence is lacking; rather, there is a reluctance to act without someone else’s approval.
Frederick Nietzsche sounded a similar theme, referring to humans as herd animals. He asserted that those who are hated most in society are those who dare to be their own creators, who challenge social norms and live according to their unique, internal values.Behold the good and the just! Whom do they hate most? The one who breaks their tablets of values, the breaker, the lawbreaker – he, however, is the creator.
The strongest obstacle to personal responsibility is the collective identity – or, rather, the collective ego. When we identify ourselves as part of a group – as part of “us” – we forego the responsibility of thinking for ourselves. The views of the collective become our views; the goals of the group become our goals; the prejudices of the mob become our prejudices.
Many of us never question our association with the collective ego. We practice the religion our parents handed down to us. Our politics mirrors that of our associates. Our values were instilled in us – consciously or not – early in our youth, and rarely questioned in adulthood. For some of us, even our life goals and our career paths were not of our conscious choosing, but are the products of others’ aspirations for us.
We need not abdicate responsibility for our lives. We can stop blaming others for our past, or blindly following others in the present, and take control of our own thoughts and actions. We can share the principles of a group, as long as they are congruent with our own principles. We can believe the assessments of others, past and present, as long as they are consistent with our own assessments. Better yet, we can critically evaluate the assessments of others, examine them for validity, make any necessary adjustments, and then let go of the external criticism.
We must critically examine our beliefs, beginning with those we hold about ourselves. Is the assessment of our self-worth truly ours, or is it the product of others, the formulation of which began in early childhood? Are the core values we hold really our values, or did we inherit them and never question their personal relevance? Are the lives we lead consistent with our true principles and goals? And the collective identities with which we identify ourselves: do they really reflect the values and goals that we have as individuals, or is our thinking molded by the group?
Since true peace and happiness come from within, the strongest sense of worth and value comes from within as well. It is our self-worth that matters most as we comport ourselves. What we do, what we feel we can achieve, our evaluation of our current life situation, is a self-assessment. Others cannot accurately determine this for us.
We can all improve different facets of our lives in some way. We can work on whatever personal shortcomings we perceive ourselves to have, and we can learn from our mistakes – correctly viewing them as feedback as to whether we are on the right course. But we must begin by accepting personal responsibility for ourselves.
Just as we need to take responsibility for our own thoughts, our own values, and our own principles, we also need to accept responsibility for our own actions. Responsibility for our actions is inherent in the Eastern concept of karma. Karma describes action and reaction. In the West, we say “what goes around comes around.” Karma postulates that every cause has an effect and every effect has a cause. Karma is immediate. We alone are responsible for our actions, and the actions we commit, or don’t commit, have immediate consequences. One of the fundamental remembrances of Buddhism is,My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequence of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.
Karma explains our current life situation, for our current circumstances are the result of all the actions we have previously taken before now. Fortunately, our future circumstances will be the result of the actions we take beginning now. We are responsible for our own lives, and how we feel about ourselves. While it may be true that one person, working for the common good, can make a difference in the world, it is an absolute certainty that each individual is the only person who can make a difference in her or her own life. Consider the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Your genuine action will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.