I recently have been helping to organize a fundraising activity for a nonprofit organization. Needing answers about local regulatory requirements, I’ve had to call municipal and county government offices. In one situation, the person who could answer my question was never in his office, and he wouldn’t return my calls. In another, I was bounced from person to person with phone transfers until the phone connection was lost. I had the feeling that no one wanted to take responsibility for answering my questions. During a second attempt, the receptionist once again transferred me to the wrong office, but this time the person I spoke with made an honest effort to help. My frustration turned into gratitude for that person’s interest.
A Sign of Maturity
I believe one of the best signs of emotional and spiritual maturity is taking responsibility for one’s actions.
Responsibility has two sides to it. One is the duty or obligation one has to fulfill in meeting legal, moral, or situational requirements. It also means being accountable to others for our actions.
Responding Under Stress
As an intern in a family medicine residency, hospital call could be demanding. While on duty, I was responsible for running Code 99’s in the hospital (usually someone experiencing cardiopulmonary arrest), heading the neonatal resuscitation team for at-risk deliveries and newborns in distress, evaluating patients at the request of the attending physician, and admitting patients to the hospital who didn’t have a physician or were under the care of resident physicians. You probably can imagine how call could be both busy and stressful. Every unattached patient I admitted became my patient so that I could build up a significant hospital census after several exhausting nights of call. Sometimes I cringed when my beeper went off.
Instead of getting better, the stress level actually got worse when I entered private practice. I would start rounds at 5:30 AM, get home between 8-9 PM, and crawl into bed about midnight after finishing my charts.
Then, one day, it occurred to me that my attitude toward patient care was messed up. Part of why I got into medicine was to help people in need. But now I was doing just the opposite — trying to figure out how I could avoid caring for patients. I had become fixated on the overwhelming obligations and duties and wanted to find a way to escape them. Perhaps you’ve felt this way before, too.
There is no doubt that during those first few months of medical practice I was overloaded and stressed, but my attitude was making it worse. Once I recognized what I was doing, I began to reframe the way I looked at the care of my patients. Instead of seeing them as an obligation or duty, I saw each person as an opportunity to care for someone in need and help them through a difficult and frequently scary experience.
A Different Approach
It seems to me that we approach responsibilities in one of three ways.
The first is to try to avoid them. After all, responsibilities mean extra work and stress and we don’t need any more of that, right?
The second is to look at each responsibility as an obligation or requirement. Sometimes we respond out of a sense of duty, and at other times we’re only trying to avoid negative consequences. Helping vocations can become “just another job” where we see ourselves as employees or “providers.”
The third approach requires a change in definition.
Responsibility means intentionally responding to the needs of another person. It is an act of love.
Responsibility is intentional.
The avoidant person probably has to be coerced into action. The duty-bound person chooses to serve, but in some ways remains passive as they try to adhere to the rules. The charitable person actively seeks the good of the other. They may be inconvenienced, but they never see it that way.
The responsible person responds to a need.
This says something about our motivation. Sometimes we do the right thing but for the wrong reasons. That doesn’t invalidate our action, but it might lessen the benefit we receive out of it. For example, there are a lot of believers who attend church faithfully every Sunday and do the things they’re supposed to do out of a sense of habit or obligation. Sometimes that’s all we can muster. It would, however, be better if we came to worship and serve out of love and a desire to return good to the Lord.
We are responsible to a person.
Sometimes this connection is apparent, as in the case of a caretaker caring for someone who is ill or a parent looking after their child. But at other times the relationship to a person isn’t so direct, like when we take out the trash.
The “person” is not just somebody else. It could be God or even yourself. Yes, we can and should be responsible to ourselves. And responsibility to another person is the same as if we did it to God, for He loves each of us as His own.
One huge difficulty remains. If we embrace responsibility, how do we set limits or boundaries? That will be subject of next week’s blog.
Response-Ability is part of a series on practices that promote psychological and spiritual health.