Responsibility can be scary. Just ask George Castanza.  In the Seinfeld episode (The Wink) Jerry squirts grapefruit juice in George’s eye and he ends up with an involuntary wink that inadvertently gains him a promotion. Hi boss, Mr Steinbrenner, in his customary position with back to the camera, and talking nonstop describes the extra responsibility to George.

Steinbrenner: George, Morgan’s out, you’re in.
Steinbrenner: A lot more work you know.
George: I know.
Steinbrenner: A lot more responsibility. Long, long hours.
George: I know.
Steinbrenner: Not much more money. But you’ll finally get the recognition you deserve.
George: That’s what I’m afraid of. You know Mr. Steinbrenner, . . .

We ALL have moments when we are afraid of being recognized. As Marianne Williamson wrote,

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous, (responsible)? Actually, who are you not to be?

What if someone recognized you for who you are? What if your talent, competence, brilliance, wisdom, strength and creativity were exactly what the world needs? You might feel compelled to stand out and put your skills to full use. Well, you have exactly what the world needs, and you CAN make a difference….without fear. You don’t have to solve all of the world’s problems or leap tall buildings in a single bound. Just express compassion in your unique ways and that will be enough. It all comes down to whether your concern is stronger than your fear.

The more you own the challenges, your own and others, the more responsible you feel, and the more you will override your self limiting, “who am I to think I could make a difference?” mentality. It’s time to be recognized, stand up, and shine.

Responsibility and Ownership

Personal responsibility is based in ownership. Parents will relate to this. When our kids are young, we give them chores that we don’t really need help with. In fact it would often be easier to do them ourselves. It’s not about the chores. It’s about ownership and responsibility. If you have ever been on a team building seminar, a retreat or mission trip, you know that events like that have as much to do with ownership as they do with specific tasks and plans. The same truth applies to democratic elections and taxes. You might doubt that your single vote or your measly taxes will make any difference. But they do. You vote and you pay taxes to build a sense of ownership and to create a habit of personal responsibility. Mind you, it’s only the first step. But it is a step in the right direction.

The notion of first responders has become more widely used since 9/11. Apply it personally. What is your first response when a problem arises? If your first response is to look around for someone to blame, then you likely aren’t taking responsibility. Imagine if the 9/11 first responders had demanded a full investigation of the attacks before digging in the rubble. Instead, they jumped straight in, took responsibility for what they could do, and left the investigation to others. The measure of personal responsibility is that your first response is to ask, what can I do to help this situation? What can I do to ease the suffering, my own and others? What can I do to improve my own situation and the situation of others?

Your first response will give you a clue as to whether you are taking personal responsibility or not. The next question is, how much responsibility are you taking? Responsibility is like the force of water from a shower head. It comes with different pressure levels. You can opt for a trickle or the power stream. In another Seinfeld episode (The Shower Head) Kramer buys a black market shower head that was used for washing elephants at the circus. The pressure is so strong that it knocks him out of the shower, in true Kramer style. You don’t have to go to that extreme, but choose to draw upon your strongest inner power response- the one full of passionate, personal responsibility.

Responsibility and Empathy

How much ownership do you feel of a problem? You can measure that by working out how much you are prepared to sacrifice to create a solution. This is important in relation to many of the problems we are facing in the world today.

The same principle applies to any issue, personal or social.  Whether it’s an area of your life where you find yourself personally stuck, a relationship challenge, climate change or a struggling economy, how far are you prepared to go to be part of the solution? If you want to heal a broken relationship, make some radical changes to your behavior. If you want to solve your personal financial crisis, radically change your lifestyle. If you want to start to reverse ecological damage, radically change your consumption. If you are serious about helping suffering children, take some radically steps.

The measure of your personal responsibility is ownership. The measure of ownership is empathy. How deeply do you feel pain, your own and others? As long as your motivation to ease suffering is greater than your fear of responsibility, you will take action.

In 1980, Cari Lightner was 13 years old. She was killed by a drunk driver while walking on a sidewalk. What happened next was an illustration of the two extremes of personal responsibility. The drunk driver left her to die while he fled the scene, a cowardly act completely lacking in responsibility. Cari’s mother Candice, on the other hand, was the epitome of personal responsibility. We can only imagine her pain? This situation was totally out of her control. She didn’t cause it, and she couldn’t have prevented it. But she chose a self empowered path. She started the group MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING (MADD). Through the group’s advocacy work, they have helped to lower the number of fatalities due to drink driving from 26,000 in 1982 to 16,000 in 2005. Because one woman took personal responsibility in a tragic situation, 10,000 lives are saved EVERY year.

Candice Lightner lives by the motto, IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME. She could have become angry and bitter. Instead she chose a path with heart, owned the situation in the most powerful way and took responsibility. What an inspiration for all of us! When you take responsibility, lives are saved, beginning with your own. Take a close look at what drives your motivation? What is your first response to challenge? You have within you all that you need to make an awesome contribution to the challenges in the world; all the passion, all the wisdom, all the empathy, and all the skill.

As Leo Buscaglia once said,

Don’t waste a second asking, ‘Why isn’t the world a better place?’ The question to ask is ‘How can I make it better?’ To that there is an answer.

The answer begins with your next thought. With your next thought, everything changes. Make sure it’s a thought that includes personal responsibility. The best thing is that responsibility is contagious. Your empowered life will automatically give others permission to shine as well. Then positive change will become inevitable. Your move!

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  1. […] not just for your actions, but also for your thoughts and even for your future. I will show that ownership and empathy are key to responsibility. I will explore some of the ways that your beliefs can either […]

  2. Sonia Rumzi says:

    How delightful! It all starts with us. One person at a time and one thought captured at a time. One kindness at a time and one smile at a time. Thank you Ian. 🙂

  3. I enjoyed your post, Ian. Your linking of responsibility to empathy reminds me of the Wall Street Occupation and the reaction of political talking heads. The protestors are voicing their concerns that Main St didnt get a bailout, while some conservatives blamed the protestors for their own financial insecurity and some liberals blamed the greed on Wall Street. They are singling out groups of people, when it’s a code of conduct across society that needs to be mended. It’s empathy that will connect us with our neighbors, and cut off our reliance on the financial system’s 401k and cheap homes.  Cheers to a great post.

  4. ian says:

    thanks Ara- i made pretty much the same point today in my post

  5. Ted Inoue says:

    Ian, thanks – what a wonderful post! I’d never thought about the combination of empathy and responsibility but it makes a lot of sense. My wife is both the most empathetic and responsible person I know. We’ve taken your suggestions to heart and are personally trying to help brighten the world by creating a social messaging site specifically for sharing praise and appreciation with friends. Hopefully this will help encourage people’s empathy too!


  6. ian says:

    Awesome Ted- i took a quick peek at your site and love the concept. Will look in more depth.

  7. Ted Inoue says:

    Thanks Ian. We’re looking for ways to make it more compelling than just giving the user the satisfaction of sending good vibes. But we don’t want to cheapen the sincerity of the action. I’d love any ideas you might have.

  8. ian says:

    Ted, lets do a skype brainstorm next week. I have some thoughts

  9. Ted Inoue says:

    Would love to. Email me direct and we’ll come up with a plan.

  10. greg says:

    Sometimes trying to make a world a better place we take too much responsibility.  In my case in turned into an addiction to support every charity, every cause and at extreme peaks giving too much could lead to abandoning yourself.  This is when you must look at values and personal goals and focus on the balance, plus the reasons why you give in the first place, whether it is about compassion or ego.

  11. ian says:

    Awesome point Greg- thank you. I will address this question in a blog this coming week.

  12. […] Empathy and Responsibility- Its Your Turn Posted by MagMan on 17/10/2011 in Papers | Subscribe – […]

  13. John says:

    Wonderfully presented, thanks it might have been just what I needed to hear!

  14. La RESTEponsaBILIté….Tu Es libre et le reste. Tel est le sens de la Responsabilité. DOnnons nous a soi d,abord mais partageons l’amour sans condition, le non jugement et la compassion a chaque jour afin que le jour ou un besoin d’entraide se fasse sentir, un autre Ami puisse aussi nous venir en aide par sa responsabilité fraternelle…sofie

  15. Bronwyn says:

    This post came at the best possible time for me.  Thank you so much!

  16. i’m happy so for you 🙂

  17. Andrew Cort says:

    In the Old Testament, the Reubenites and Gaddites stay on THIS side of the Jordan River, tending their flocks. In the New Testament, peter is a ROCK who tends to Christ’s flocks HERE. In Greek Mythology, Persephone (the Soul) must spend Part of every year in HADES (this, btw, is Hades). The Spiritual Traditions are very clear. We have responsibilities HERE. We mustn’t aim to transcend this world, we have to TRANSFORM it.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Beyond that I really loved this post and beyond that it made me think considerable of my own mind set, rethink my own mind set actually, I think you’re really onto something by linking empathy to personal responsibility. I’ve witnessed first hand lately. Those that lack empathy do not take responsibility for their actions, how they hurt others, how their actions affect others. They objectify people or even situations in order to not feel attached to their part in affecting them. I believe the extreme of this behavior is termed psycho/sociopath… am I correct? I’ve had to learn how to not allow people who behave this way to affect the way I behave toward them. It’s so easy to seek revenge, do harm, act in anger toward someone who has already dehumanized you. But, and here is the other part of your point, how will your actions, or reactions, affect you? What would you be making yourself feel? And would you be able to live with the loneliness and isolation that constantly being angry and perhaps dangerous would cause. Wasn’t the fact that you felt such intense reactions in the first place at least an indication that you aren’t built for that live style? I’ve had to ask myself these questions. They were helpful. And liberating. Anger is a secondary emotion. Always an indicator never the answer. Get to the truth of what you’re feeling and react to that. More often then not you’ll find it’s love. 

  19. I’ve been trying to find ways to divest myself of broader responsibility. I think sometimes when looking at the big picture it’s easy to lose sight of the small picture, or worse, to absolve ones self of responsibility by betting lost in the big picture. I spent more time on larger causes than on finding ways to support my family in a tough economy…perhaps because the latter was more difficult…or because there was an easier more transparent metric for success and more importantly failure.

    Sometimes it seems like we give more weight to the broader, more glamorous activities: saving whales, crusading for this or that social justice, pounding on this or that statewide issue…and too little weight to the simple action of keeping ones family safe and fed and housed.  

  20. Andrea Simmons says:

    I agree totally though haven’t been able or willing to put the sort of action in place that would lead to the outcome I need to make happen. It is totally up to me, I get that. Throughout my life I’ve been that person who could decide to do something and make it happen. Not sure what’s holding me back now, but something is, and I’m aware that what ever the it is, it is internal not external.

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