As you know, I've been on this jag lately of talking about change. It's not easy talking about change in our hyper-politicized culture, especially these days during this election season, because our politics tries to force us to make a false, either-or choice: Either you're for personal change and ignore social and economic injustice (such people are called conservatives), or you're for social change and make excuses for people's unwise personal choices and irresponsible personal behavior (such people are called liberals). This is a foolish dichotomy. There is no reason we cannot be for personal and social responsibility at the same time. In fact, I think our country is at its best when we insist on both.
From the pulpit, I typically focus on social responsibility because I think our excessively individualistic society obsesses on individual freedom and individual initiative and individual discipline and individual work ethic and individual responsibility and neglects the political, social, and economic forces which shape individual choices and actions. But today I want to focus on personal responsibility. You cannot change until you are willing to take responsibility for the change you want to create in your life. Even the topic of personal responsibility is not without controversy, however, because as a society we have engendered a sense of entitlement to a no-fault, risk-free life. Let me give you a few examples of what I'm talking about.
The University of Alaska was ordered to pay $50,000 to a man injured when he and a woman slid down a snowy hill on an inner tube and hit a tree. The woman died. The court held that the school’s warning signs, which the two saw and ignored, were insufficient.
A student is suing Princeton University because of injuries received from high-voltage machinery when he climbed onto the roof of a railroad shuttle that serves the university.
Brown University spent two years and upwards of $50,000 fending off a suit by a young woman who sought $700,000 because she hurt her arm on a broken soap dish while taking a shower in a dormitory with her boyfriend.
A Florida court awarded disability benefits to a woman who complained of stress from working alongside “large black males.”
In Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Cheltzie Hentz triggered local, state, and even federal investigations of her charge of sexual harassment. Cheltzie is seven. Her alleged harassers -- boys on the school bus -- use, she says, “naughty language.”
A Duxbury, Massachusetts, fireman savagely clubbed his wife, fracturing her skull, severing an ear, and leaving her partially deaf. A judge decided the clubber had been temporarily insane and acquitted him. But the fire department made a big mistake when it fired the man. The clubber filed a complaint and seven years of litigation produced a ruling from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination: the clubber was a victim of “handicap discrimination” because his violent behavior wasn’t his fault. The commission ordered him rehired and paid $200,000 plus twelve percent interest for back pay and emotional distress (which he had a right not to suffer).
You may remember Lorena Bobbitt, who -- how shall we say -- “dismembered” her husband. She claimed his past abuse justified her action, and the jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.
Remember Colin Ferguson? He was the African American New York City man who went on a shooting spree in a crowded Long Island commuter train, killing six people and wounding nineteen. His lawyers claimed that he was the victim of “black rage” against whites and Asians. His actions were not his fault but the fault of our racist society.
Remember Yankee pitcher Steve Howe? He earned a lifetime ban from baseball with his seventh drug violation. An arbitrator, however, said that he had a right to play baseball because his cocaine use was the result of hyperactivity. (I have always assumed that cocaine caused hyperactivity, not vice versa.)
I could go on and on with examples of how our Bill of Rights has grown to include the right of anyone to do anything he or she pleases without having to face the consequences of one's actions and the right to be compensated for any unpleasant consequences that may occur. Perhaps this is the reason for so many warning labels on consumer products:
On a baby stroller: “Remove child before folding”;
On a hair dryer: “Do not use while sleeping”;
On a pudding box: “Product will be hot after heating”;
On a Tiramisu dessert box (printed on the bottom of the box): “Do not turn upside down";
On an iron: “Do not iron clothes on body”;
On a box of sleeping pills: “Warning: May cause drowsiness”;
On a bag of peanuts: “Warning: Contains nuts”;
On a child’s Superman costume: “The wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly”;
On a Swedish chainsaw: “Do not attempt to stop chain with your hands or genitals,” which tells me that somebody somewhere must have tried.
For 20 billion years, the universe has existed. For a fraction of that time – only 4.5 billion years – the earth has existed. For a fraction of that time --only 3.8 billion years – has life existed. For a fraction of that time – only 200,000 years – has human life existed. For a fraction of that time – only 12,000 years – has agriculture existed, which has allowed our species to cease living from hand-to-mouth and stay a step ahead of hunger. For a fraction of that time – only 5,000 years – have we lived in cities. And for a fraction of that time have we been watching “Dancing with the Stars." Our lifetime constitutes a minute fraction of time. You and I have been given by the evolutionary history of the universe this fragile, precious gift of life. Most of the stuff of the universe is inanimate matter. Most species of life have turned out to be evolutionary cul-de-sacs and have gone extinct. But you and I have been privileged to be alive and to be alive as human beings. Depending on your belief system, God or Life or the Universe or the Flying Spaghetti Monster has given you and me the gift of life, which we have neither earned nor deserved, and the lifetime challenge for you and me and all human beings is to unwrap this incredible gift.
Or as Glen Reinhardt would say, our responsibility is to play the cards we're dealt. Glen was a blunt, straight-talking, old codger in the first congregation I served, and when I knew him, he was dying of emphysema he contracted by inhaling asbestos as a railroad worker. Once it looked as if he were going to die that very day. Trying to be reassuring, I said to him, “Glen, I know you’ve got to be worn out from fighting this so long. Don't you want just to let go and die?” He opened his eyes, sat up in his bed, and replied, “Hell no!” The last time I spoke with him, just before he did die, I asked him what kept him going through his prolonged illness. He said, “Well, preacher, as I see it, life is a card game. We don’t get to decide the cards we’re dealt. We just have to play ‘em the best we can.”
One card we're dealt is the card of genetics and biology, of which we have no choice. Whether we like it or not, a certain arrangement of our DNA determines our height and, to some degree, our weight; our skin, eye, and hair color; our gender and sexual orientation. We inherit the propensity to have certain diseases, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. As psychologist, I’m aware that we inherit the propensity to have many psychological conditions, not only things like schizophrenia, ADHD, and alcoholism, but even the propensity to have mood disorders, like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
We are dealt the card of circumstances, of which we have little choice. Without our consent, we are born to a particular pair of parents, who behave according to the norms of their families, and these patterns of behavior, which have been generations in the making, determine our attitudes, values, and behaviors far more than we know.
We are born at a particular point in time. We could have been born during the time of Jesus, but instead, we have been born during the time of Justin Bieber. The times in which we live shape how we live.
We are born in a particular socio-economic class, the influences and opportunities of which we tend to downplay in America but which are profound whether we wish to acknowledge them or not, including even our life expectancy. People with high incomes live, on average, 5 years longer than people with low incomes. Since the rich live longer than the poor, since women live longer than men, and since whites live longer than blacks in America, an affluent white woman, on average, will live 14 years longer than a low income black man. The class into which we are born shapes how we live and how long we live.
We are born in a particular culture. We could have been born in Great Britain, Greece, or Grenada, but we were born in the American culture. To a large extent, our culture determines what we eat, how we earn, save, and spend our money, how we relax, what makes us feel safe and fulfilled, how we measure self-esteem, success, failure, and happiness, how we define family, friendship, love, health, and illness, what we believe about God, life, and death. Where we live shapes how we live.
We are also dealt the card of free will. It's become fashionable to focus on external circumstances, past and present. "I inherited my addictive tendencies from my mother’s side of the family. They were all alcoholics and drug addicts." "My brain chemistry won’t allow me to concentrate." "I have low self-esteem because my father used to criticize me all the time." "I don’t have the income to circulate in those social circles." "My husband won’t pay any attention to me." "My children are impossible. They won’t do anything I say." "My boss is a tyrant. He never treats me with respect."
All of these things may be true, but these aren’t the only cards in our hands. We also have the card of free will. I have freedom and responsibility over my thoughts, feelings, and perspectives about my past and present circumstances; over my attitude toward what has occurred or is occurring; over my response to the events of my life. I may not be able to change what is happening or what is happening to me, but I can always determine my response to what is happening. I cannot always control what happens “out there,” but I can always control what happens “in here.” That’s my power. That’s my dignity as a human being. Circumstances in the world and people in my life may wield considerable influence over me, but they can’t take away my dignity unless I give it to them.
When we focus only on external circumstances, we feel helpless, passive, and dependent. We see ourselves as victims and we act like victims. But when we become more enlightened, more self-aware -- more aware of how we perceive things, more aware of how we think about others and ourselves, more aware of how we feel about what’s happening to us, more aware of the range of responses we can give -- then we realize our ability to influence the events of our life. We may even realize that we have some role in contributing to our frustrations and problems because we do not exist in a vacuum. No person is an island, entire of itself. Our social environment is reciprocal in nature. My thoughts and actions influence you. Your thoughts and actions, in turn, influence me. Each action elicits a reaction. As I become more self-aware, I realize that I cannot control the events of my life, but I can influence them.
Let's say I'm depressed. There are some genetic and biological factors that contribute to depression. Some of us inherit brains that don't produce enough norepinephrine and/or serotonin. When these neurotransmitters are at insufficient levels, we experience depression, and medications like Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa, and Lexapro raise these chemicals to their normal levels. There are circumstances that contribute to depression. Most people will experience some degree of depression in response to a significant loss, like the loss of a loved one, you job, or your home. Some of us have experienced circumstances in our past that make us more vulnerable to depression, like the death of a parent, physical or emotional abuse, or neglect.
If I am depressed, I probably will not feel like interacting with others, which means I will become isolated and alone. The more isolated I am, the more depressed I will become, and the more depressed I am, the less I will feel like interacting with others. There is a reciprocal component to depression. I cannot help that I may have a genetic predisposition to depression or that I may have suffered emotional neglect in childhood or that I may have been laid off by my employer. But I can control me. If I can focus on what I can do, however small that may be, I might be able to influence what is happening to me.
I can notice how my negative thoughts and pessimistic beliefs contribute to my depression. “Nothing ever goes right. Everything I do ends in disaster.” “Nobody listens to me. Why bother to speak up?” “Nobody could possibly like me once they get to know me. So why bother?” My thoughts and beliefs can stop me cold before I even get out of the gate.
I can notice how my passivity contributes to my depression. Even though I may not feel like it, I can push myself to get up and get dressed in the morning. I could go for a walk and get some exercise. I could call or visit a friend and see how they’re doing. I could make an appointment with my doctor to see if medication might help or with a counselor to sort out my problems and explore solutions. Once I push myself to do these things, I notice that I feel better. When I focus on what I can do, instead of what has been done to me, I realize my ability to influence the events in my life. This is playing the card of free will.
No matter how privileged and protected your life may be, sooner or later, life will deal you the card of pain and misfortune. It's not a matter of if but when you are dealt that card. Our politics these days is infused with a heavy dose of the libertarian philosophy, which is basically a philosophy of dog-eat-dog, it's-every-man-for-himself. Libertarians don't recognize the existence of a social contract, and they want to shred the social safety net. I've noticed that a lot of libertarians are young people, and I think that's the case because they haven't lived long enough yet to realize that everyone, including themselves, will fall and fail, will get sick and get injured, will be unable to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and will need, not a hand-out, but a hand up. Everyone sooner or later will be dealt the card of pain and misfortune.
Not if, but when you are dealt that card, it accomplishes nothing to try to avoid, deny, or downplay your suffering. Avoidance and denial do not change what is. It is an absolute waste of time to whine about life’s unfairness. Life doesn’t pay any attention to our expectations of what is supposed to happen. Life simply happens, and our challenge is to face what happens and deal with it. You may ask, “Why me?" but life will ask, “Why not you?” Life doesn’t hand out passes when it comes to pain and misfortune.
Just ask Gibson Henderson. He awoke one morning to find he could not feel or move his feet or legs, so he was rushed by ambulance to the hospital, where they discovered he had myelitis, inflammation of the spinal cord that creates paralysis at that level of the spine and below. Gibson was told that failure to have any sensation or movement below his chest after six weeks would be conclusive that his paralysis was permanent. During those six weeks, he was tested daily for sensation with pinpricks, and he dreamed nightly that he could walk. Those dreams stopped when six weeks passed and he was still unable to walk.
His paralysis confronts him daily with what he can’t do: getting out of bed, taking a shower, getting dressed, standing up, and greeting his wife with a hug. His paralysis confronts him with his own vulnerability. He can’t be left safely alone at home in bed. He is one breath away from contracting illnesses he never thought of as a walking person, most of which could kill him. He is a devoted wife away from the nursing home. He is a bed sore away from having to be hospitalized for months. When he takes the elevator, he reads the sign, “In case of fire, use the stairs,” and he realizes that there’s no rescue plan for him. Gibson Henderson has had to let go of the illusion that life is controllable.
The flip side of which is not being able to take anything for granted. He appreciates more exquisitely than ever what he formerly overlooked, like being outside on a fall day with his skin alive to the cool breeze or being home from the hospital in his own bed with his wife next to him. He has been dealt a lot of cards beyond his control, but he is playing his one ace in the hole – his free will. “Despite everything I had no choice about," says Gibson, "I did have one fundamental choice to make: my choice of a stance toward life. Would I find joy in what I could still do, or would I succumb to grief over what I’d lost? I have chosen joy and, except for occasional times when grief simply overwhelms me, I’ve stuck to it.”
When bad things happen to us, we typically ask, “Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?” These questions represent our attempt to find meaning in what has happened, but meaning is not found by looking at where tragedy comes from. Those kinds of questions are pointless. Meaning is found by looking to where tragedy leads. We give our pain and misfortune meaning by how we respond. As Gibson Henderson discovered, paralysis can mean despair, or it can mean a deeper appreciation for life. The choice is ours.
My old friend Glen Reinhardt was not educated but he was wise. The meaning of a card game -- and of life -- is not so much what cards are dealt to us, but how we play them. That's neither a Democratic nor a Republican stand; it's neither a liberal nor a conservative position. It's a fact of life.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
Articles and Sermons >