This is the third article in a series on responsibility. First I looked at the personal and relational issues around responsibility, where each individual owns their choices, responses and feelings. It’s summarized well by the Fritz Perls statement,

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.

Second I looked at the social aspect of responsibility. When you see something that could be improved in the world, it’s your responsibility to do something about it. When it comes to activism, it’s always your move. IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME.

Now I turn my attention to the spiritual dimensions of responsibility. Starting with the most basic point, it still needs to be said that EVERYONE is responsible for their own beliefs. We each choose our beliefs and no one can tell you what to believe unless you give them that power.

Some branches of religion are better at encouraging personal responsibility than others, just as some encourage questions more than others. In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer riles the KKK who burn a cross on the family’s front lawn. Later, in an effort to get the KKK off his back, Homer angers the local Unitarians who, in frustration, burn a huge question-mark into Homer’s lawn.

As comedian Lenny Bruce said, “I know my humor is outrageous when it makes the Unitarians so mad they burn a question mark on my front lawn.”

Questioning is healthy because it’s part of taking responsibility for your own beliefs. The Buddha offered a great summary of this point-

Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings – that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.

This is an awesome quote because it takes personal responsibility a step further than free thought. Free thought is great but needs a purpose, and some way to measure its effectiveness. Choose your own beliefs by all means, beliefs that match your personality and life experience. But make sure you choose beliefs that are empowering, for you and all around you. Whether you believe in God or not, whether you use religious language to describe your beliefs or not, make this choice based on what is most empowering. Unfortunately, not all belief in God is empowering.

There is a classic story about a town hit by a flood. People escaped the rising waters anyway they could. But one man believed that he heard a message from God to wait on the roof of his house until God came to rescue him. That’s what he did. He waited as the water rose higher and higher. His neighbor called out to him- climb aboard our boat and we will take you to safety. He said, “No. I trust that God will come to rescue me.” After another hour or so, the coast guard came by and called for him to climb aboard their boat. He said, “No. I trust that God will come to rescue me.” Finally, as waters were about to engulf the whole house, rescuers came by in a helicopter and said, “You must climb the ladder NOW. We will rescue you.” He said to them, “No. I’m waiting for God to rescue me.” Sure enough, the floodwaters rose above the roof of his house and he drowned.” When he went to meet his maker, he asked God, “what’s the deal, God? You said you would rescue me, but you never came.” God said, “What do you mean? I came for you three times and you sent me away.”

Waiting for God to rescue you is a disempowering belief. That doesn’t mean that all understandings of God are disempowering. For many people, God IS a sense of inner empowerment. Many people think of the God within as the inner wisdom to know when and how to take responsibility. Believing that we are here for each other, to manifest divine love in the world is also an EMPOWERING belief. Choose beliefs that lead you to live with greater responsibility, for yourself and the world around you.

Doctor Victor Frankl was imprisoned in a concentration camp in the Second World War. He lost his mother, father, brother and wife while in the camps. He wrote extensively about what he experienced and in particular why some people in the death camps lost all hope while others survived with their hope intact. He liked to quote Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

Taking responsibility for finding your own meaning and manifesting that meaning in an imperfect world is one of the whys that make any how bearable. Like many who wrote about theology after WW2, the experience made them rethink the idea that God is an external being who chooses to rescue some people and not others. If God is capable of ending human suffering, but chooses not to, then God has to be held accountable for terror. The way they solved the problem of suffering was to place God IN the suffering, alongside people who suffer innocently, rather than causing it or watching passively from the sidelines. In a sense God became the power that people had to choose their response, even in suffering, and to choose the why that made their how bearable.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another theologian of the time, who was executed for his part in an assassination attempt on Hitler, talked about “coming of age” which was another way to describe personal responsibility. He wasn’t talking about doing away with God, but looking to science, inner wisdom, personal experience and innovation, rather than a magical idea of waiting for God, to solve the world’s problems.

These theologians who formed their views in a literal cauldron of the worst of humanity, paved the way for what we now call spirituality without religion or as I call it inclusive spirituality. (Click here to read more about what I mean by inclusive spirituality) People are coming of age now like never before, inside and outside of religion, by taking responsibility for their own spiritual path, whether it’s through yoga, nature, the arts, personal study, group activism or cherry picking the best from all the great traditions.

You don’t need to be told because the truth resides within. You don’t need to be rescued because you have within you everything that you need to take responsibility for your own destiny and the future of the planet. If you use sacred language to describe this inner potential, then that’s great. Some call it God within, intuition, conscience, and many other names. However you describe it, you have the freedom and responsibility to make your own choices and then live with them. This is definitely a sacred responsibility.

Maybe the Sioux creation story comes closest to capturing the spiritual sense of responsibility.

The Creator gathered all of Creation and said, “I want to hide something from the humans until they are ready for it. It is the realization that they create their own reality.”

The eagle said, “Give it to me, I will take it to the moon.”

The Creator said, “No. One day they will go there and find it.”

The salmon said, “I will bury it on the bottom of the ocean.”

“No. They will go there too.”

The buffalo said, “I will bury it on the Great Plains.”

The Creator said, “They will cut into the skin of the Earth and find it even there.”

Grandmother Mole, who lives in the breast of Mother Earth, and who has no physical eyes but sees with spiritual eyes, said, “Put it inside of them.”

And the Creator said, “It is done.”

In the next piece, I will take this notion of spirituality and personal responsibility a step further. In your awareness, you are responsible for all that arises.

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  1. [...] show that ownership and empathy are key to responsibility. I will explore some of the ways that your beliefs can either enhance or limit your sense of personal responsibility, and how from a spiritual [...]

  2. [...] in a series on responsibility. The first part looked at responsibility as the ability to respond. The third addresses the issue of taking responsibility for your own spiritual [...]

  3. Craig Hart says:

    Excellent, excellent. Yes. As I’ve said many times before, “religion is for the masses, spirituality is for the individual.” People who wait for religion (God) to simply answer all their questions are going to be disappointed, disillusioned…yes, one MUST take responsibility for their own spirituality.

  4. ian says:

    thx Craig- I like that, “religion is for the masses, spirituality is for the individual.”

  5. Victor says:

    So true Ian.  As a Christian I too see people “waiting on the Lord” for their life’s answers instead of tapping into and trusting the power He/She gave them.  Such a passive attitude is like a sailor allowing the winds and waves to buffet his/her ship over the seas instead of using those same winds and seas to sail to his/her destination.  And many of these souls end up disappointed and disillusioned in the end.

    Taking personal responsibility is a frightening challenge at first, especially when we’ve been taught to wait on an outside agent.  But I’m learning it can be so empowering when you do so.  Keep up the good work!

  6. ian says:

    thx Victor. Your inclusive christian approach brings a smile to my soul.

  7. Monica Dart says:

    great article!  The quote from above “I do my thing…” is originally written by Ali McGraw.  My mom used to have it up in our home when I was little.

  8. Lorie says:

    Excellent article thank you Ian. I think it is part of the spiritual journey / awakening and evolution to grow from a powerless / victim mentality to one of empowerment and personal responsibility. I know it has been part of mine. Many blessings

  9. Jenny says:

    I’m struck by the Sioux creation story and the line “the realization that they create their own reality.”  Looking backward, I can see now that every major life change came about with me creating my current reality through a two fold process of daydreaming and writing.  When those two were combined, dramatic results occurred.  The combination of envisioning and writing (writing solidified the visions and added an element of belief and possibility) works like magic.  Whenever I feel stagnant, restless, unsatisfied, all I have to do is return to the practice of imagining, then follow it up with a written reflection or plan of action.  Sometimes the plans unfold into a reality that I did not predict or imagine…but this is because of a greater power.  The still small voice, the spirit, the divine…whatever you want to call God…there is one who is seeing things from a greater perspective, one who can add a larger purpose or details and interesting surprises.

  10. Sue Tait says:

    Thanks Ian again for your profound insight and wisdom and for sharing it. Taking personal responsibility in everything we do including our spiritual growth is well, so shall we say, “our personal responsibility”. NO one or NO religion can do that for us. We must CHOOSE to do so ourselves and take the first step to as partly quoted above ” became the power that (we) people had (have) to choose their (our own)  response, even in suffering, and to choose the why that made their (our) how bearable.  Blessings my friend. Hope you enjoy your time in Canada. Sue from The Angel Pendant

  11. ian says:

    hi Sue- well said. Having a great time in London, ON. Much love

  12. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    @Jenny: I’m glad you too find your own method of working things out when needed.  I was born under Pisces, and they do say that we tend to be dreamers.  But I do believe in God and ON Him, and that He has a plan for me…whatever that may be remains to be seen. But I’m also spiritual more than religious, I don’t believe  everything I’m told. I sometimes feel like telling some preachers off for putting the fear of God into some of the congregation, instead of preaching ‘love’.  I don’t push myself to do anything anymore, I believe in letting go and letting the spirit of love guide me to do whatever.  I am less stressed for living this way, and also feel no guilt like I used to do. I felt like I was doing more for others than I had time to do for myself.  I now don’t worry that I have to have a plan because one can push oneself forward and spoil the original plan that will reveal itself in time.   This belief leaves me feeling good.  These are my own beliefs, and don’t expect others to feel the same way.   I do like your piece on responsibility though Ian, and thanks for the poem it’s really lovely, you do write some remarkable pieces for us. 

  13. Foxy says:

    Your articles never fail to WOW me. 

  14. Cheryl says:

    Such a prolific piece. I truly believe we all have it within us to change the course of our outcomes; we are who we’ve been waiting for. Thank you, I always enjoy reading your posts, this one is by far my favorite.

  15. Sameera Vithanage says:

    The word Responsibility is a highly charged word. There is so much judgment that goes along with thinking that one has a spiritual responsibility to do the correct thing. If we don’t take personal responsibility for our own life, then we can’t expect much to change. Reaching out for help isn’t the action of a weak person, but an act of commitment, spiritual trust and love. The American <a href=”http://www.surya.org/ask-the-lama-2/”>Lama Surya Das</a> explains his view on spiritual responsibility and cult awareness. Surya Das thought - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lama-surya-das/spiritual-responsibility-_b_1597886.html