What would it mean to accept full responsibility for our lives?
How would our lives change if we took full responsibility for our decisions within the construct we find ourselves in; including how we decide within situations we have no control over.
I’ve been thinking about this subject profoundly for years now ever since a philosophy unit regarding free-will.
Considering that we have full autonomy in what to focus on, and therefore, what to move towards, how can we not be held responsible for our choices?
For example, I have a choice in
- What I choose to think, say and speak about,
- What I invest/waste my money on,
- what I invest/waste my free time on,
- What I read, watch, listen to,
- Who I associate or waste time with,
- How I perform any task,
- Whether I honour my promises,
- Whether I lie, exaggerate or mislead,
This list can be endless.
However, at this initial level of awareness, I have to confront the inescapable realisation that because I am free to make those choices, it’s an unarguable conclusion that I am fully responsible for the future effects of those decisions.
- What I say cannot be unheard
- The hours I laboriously worked for the money I frivolously wasted can’t be returned.
- What I spend time watching, reading and listening to is calibrating how I perceive my reality.
- Who I spend time with either fulfils and elevates me, or demeans and debases me (without a conscious and stable sense of self, I become the average of the people I spend the most time with),
- Do I perform tasks to the best of my ability or do I mindlessly get it over and done with? How is this habit evolving me?
- Does my word have any weight? Do I say what I mean and mean what I say?
- Do I speak the truth or do I lie to avoid conflict/judgement; how could lies fracture my sense of self and standing within my community?
- Do I live my definition of an exciting and fulfilling life, or will I cower in mediocrity and exaggerate events to be perceived as more than I feel myself to be; how could this influence expectations?
- Do I behave with honour and virtue, or will I mislead others for personal gain, in an act or in-kind; how could this affect me and my fellow man?
Every passing moment I have the choice to choose.
Every moment I am responsible for the choices I make, and don’t make.
More importantly, I am responsible for the acceptance with the consequences of those choices.
We can’t take it back
Being conscious of my choices is difficult after a lifetime of automated reactions. I recognise mindless reactions are no more than habits forged over countless repetitions via an initial decision. That particular choice was probably copied off someone else who mindlessly copied someone else too.
As an example, I was recently talking to a friend about how we often unwittingly pick up habits we may not particularly want just because we’re continuously being exposed to an environment. Our disposition and circumstances are a direct reflection of what we’ve repeatedly chosen to do. Those choices repeated often enough become habits. Those habits, in turn, create our paradigms. Cause and effect. If we pay attention, we’ll remember there was an approximate time where we chose an action that eventually became a habit.
For me, in my younger years, one of the many wrong choices was swearing. (I’ll use swearing as an example to illustrate a concept, but swearing in itself isn’t the point of this post)
Most children are taught that profane words are wrong. We are scolded for using profanity, and for a good reason. Inappropriate and mindless swearing is disrespectful, vulgar and a sign of a lazy mind. Profanity is a cheap way to get a reaction—usually because the person doesn’t have the imagination or wit for the desired emotional effect. I’m not talking about those times when we’ve had enough and in a fleeting moment of lunacy curse our frustration. No, I mean when we use profanity as a common substitute for regular words. When swearing is used as an easy way to get shock value. It’s common to see teenagers doing this. I see middle-aged people doing it also at a stage in their lives when they should’ve grown out of it.
I was one of those teenagers.
Having attended a rough, low-grade high-school, I then went to work as a welder; both in workshops and various mining sites. Of course, these aren’t the ideals of civil discourse. Instead, it’s an environment where profanity is the primary language of currency. This is where I picked it up. This is where I chose to make profanity my common vocabulary in order to blend in—to be one of the “boys”.
Habitually, being vulgar became a manner that spilled into normal life in my twenties. I remember the tug in my chest when I swore, coupled with the temporary elation of an uncaring, jovial pretence. I thought it was funny, yet, normal to shock people with my ability to insert inappropriate vulgar words and “jokes” during a conversation.
I thought I was clever by being able to switch from crass to profound in the same conversation. Look at me, I can be vulgar and shocking, but I’m also deep and reflective!
If I had of paid attention, I would’ve noticed the signs of discomfort, puzzlement or politeness in others.
If I had of paid attention, I wouldn’t of confused polite tolerance with acceptance.
I’m not proud of it.
In part because I knew better. I wasn’t raised that way, and deep down I didn’t like being around people who spoke the way I did. I didn’t trust them. If they didn’t have the sense to speak well, then what else would they be lacking sense in? If they were this desperate to be vulgar, then how together can they be?
Yet, here I was mindlessly, automatically, reactively, habitually doing the very thing I despised. Reflecting and affirming those very questions.
If I only knew then what I know now.
Cursing is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mindless habits. Choices were made every time I spoke, with hidden consequences—some small, some large, but mostly unknown.
I often cringe when I reflect on my past behaviour. How many people did I attract or repel based on how I was perceived? As an extension of this thought experiment, how many opportunities did I miss because I repelled certain people through my verbal choices? Even worse, how many people subconsciously lost respect or confidence in me because of my “one of the boys” persona?
This rabbit hole of honest, Socratic reflection can spiral us toward the edge of an abyss. An abyss of missed opportunity, denial and disdain for the sellout we recognise ourselves to be.
But skirting around the edge of this abyss is usually temporary. After all, why risk self-annihilation with all this existential introspection while I can busy myself with non-stop distraction?
But I’m on borrowed time.
And so are you.
The inevitability of You
Life is going to make us ill, disabled, dependent and eventually dead. It’s our physical destiny after all; something some already understands all too well.
So you now dread the coming irrecoverable illness? You will if the illness will be the only impetus you have for profound, sustained, critical introspection.
But by then, it may be too late.
You may not recover and have the opportunity to make amends. To re-live anew with the wisdom gained through forced aloneness.
Nevertheless, with or without recovery, an illness is often a blessing in disguise.
An illness forced me to slow down enough to pay attention. With my body out of commission, I am forced to stop distracting myself with wasteful things. I am faced with the inevitability that is me. I am thrust into my mortality and reminded that I am physically time-limited.
I will not live forever.
I will age. I will deteriorate. I will die.
No amount of running will save me.
No amount of distraction will make death overlook me.
No amount of spending and pretending will spare me.
I’ll inevitably end up in a hospital room wired to monitors and drips with someone wiping my wastes; but I will not be yearning for all the things I didn’t authentically, consciously do and say.
For most, it’s going to be a rude awakening.
Maybe you’ll find out that you’re not as conscious, as brave, or as in control as you pretend to be.
Perhaps you’ll have to face inner demons—all those lies you sell about yourself like cheap trinkets.
Indeed, illness is the ultimate teacher. It strips us of options and asks: “What am I made of?”
“Who am I, now that I can no longer continue the charade?”
Who am I when I’m of no physical use to my circle of fellow actors, in a play I chose to write?
In my solitude, underneath the noise that is my self-perpetuating persona, lies a silent presence deeper than the Mariana trench.
That silence is who I truly am.
That silence is where my authenticity arises. That silence, that pause, that centre, can’t lie, cheat or pretend. It is incapable of it because it’s pure and perfect. Anything else that constitutes my thoughts and persona is nothing more than the distorted, convoluted memories of learnt words, images and rituals that I mistakenly believe is uniquely mine.
ALS demanded I pay attention. And I listened.
Living with Socratic awareness is simple, but it’s not easy.
Socratic awareness is simple because its only requirement is conscious, honest questioning of our choices; as well as naturally accepting responsibility for past, present and future decisions—good or bad, right or wrong.
But Socratic awareness is not easy because it asks us to be vigilant, consciously responsible, and aware of what we chose.
We are so habituated to react on auto-pilot, that presence of mind in speech, thought and deed seems an insurmountable task.
Coupled with having to choose between what we fundamentally need and what we habitually want, and the conscious acceptance of responsibility for everything we think, say and do . . . well, it may all just be too hard to bother.
And that is a choice too.
Also published on Medium.