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Your Responsibility is Your Response-Ability

November 03, 20234 min read

Life can be tough. Bad things do happen to everybody. Bad things happen to bad people; bad things happen to good people. We can think of three groups of people who respond to the bad things that happen to them. The first group of people choose to overcome the bad things. They learn lessons and move on. They have a mature ability to respond. They see relevant options and have capacity to wisely choose from among those options. They have effective “response-ability.”

A second group of people do not learn the lessons well enough and begin to cycle into a mediocre living, choosing to accept that there is nothing they can do about the cards they were dealt, fair or unfair. They paint themselves the numbing illusion of moving on, but in fact, day-in and day-out they climb onto a hamster wheel of habit and routine, perhaps the sensation of motion, but never really moving anywhere. Their “response-ability” is more limited.

The third group of people do not learn the lessons. This is where most of us are when traumatic events occur. We do not see clearly all the options in front of us. People in this third group find it hard to overcome. They do not accept. They do not move on. Living in defensive, survival mode, they choose to build a trap, a trap that is built of the shambles of defeat and hopelessness and powerlessness. They then choose to place themselves in that self-constructed trap in acts of victiming or depressing or blaming or angering or addictioning or a host of other choices that lead them to misery. Rather than “response-ability,” they have “response-inability”

What is the key difference between the three groups?

Certainly not the event, the bad thing that happens to us. Different people can have the same thing happen to them and respond in very different ways.

What about the people we must interact with who “make” us feel miserable? Maybe a domineering boss, a controlling spouse, a crabby neighbor, unruly kids—surely that can explain the differences between the three groups.  Not so. We need to understand that other people can neither make us miserable or happy. Others simply do not have that power.

Then perhaps the difference is due to genetics. No. There are plenty of examples of people whose genetic make-up might suggest the ability either to overcome problems as they arise or succumb to victiming. After all, they were simply born that way, right? That level of “response-ability” is obviously limiting.

That leaves environment. Someone born into poverty or dire family circumstances does not have the same opportunities, for example. Not so, for some of the greatest achievers have had very humble beginnings, while their contemporaries from the same neighborhood, the same circumstances, and even the same family have remained trapped in a loop of disadvantage.

The stimuli—event, people, genetics, environment—are not the problem. We often think or behave as if they were, but none of these things can make us feel anything. They are simply facts; they are information to be processed. By itself, information has no power to make us think or feel or do anything. How we choose to respond to the information—our “response-ability”—is the deciding factor.

Bad things happen, of course. Hard things must be dealt with, of course. When a person’s response-ability is mature enough and strong enough, they can deal with whatever happens to them.

The flow basically goes something like this: something bad happens (information). That is a decision point, though all of us have built-in automatic responses over the years. That fact is neither good nor bad. However, if the automatic ability to respond is based on immature behaviors that may have worked as a child but are no longer productive as a teen or as an adult, it is time to back off the automatic response mechanism and consider more carefully the information.

The next step in the flow is essentially a choice. In broad terms there are actually only two options, whatever the information might be. The first option is to proceed along a creative path of intentional design and deliberate choosing (the path relying on response-ability); the second is to simply be reactive, accepting a path not deliberately chosen but thrust upon us by default. In other words, act or be acted upon (a path of relative response-inability).

If we were athletes—let’s say track stars—we may have some natural talent. For instance, you may be fast. You may be strong. But every athlete who performs at advanced levels need a coach. A coach helps you learn how to be faster. A coach helps you become stronger. The coach doesn’t do the work for you. You must choose to put in the work, to train properly, to work out in the weight room, to do the sprints and the routines. But the coach lets you know what routines you should focus on, charts your progress, keeps you focused. Over time, you increase your abilities to perform and to compete.

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Rene'e La Montagne Dunn

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