Meaning of Responsibility and the Statue of Liberty
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
On a picturesque Hawaiian island, at long last
I am able to shed all my burdens and responsibilities as easily
as I shed my clothes. Lying on the sandy beach, looking into the
wide open sky, listening to the rhythms of the surf, and feeling
the gentle caress of the ocean breeze, I have a surreal sense of
being in a different world - the pristine world of aboriginals.
A hut made of palm leaves. Drinking from a fresh coconut. Living
off the bounties of the ocean and the land. Singing and dancing
around a bonfire. Life can be so simple, free and happy.
fully alive to the present is to transform the fleeting moments
into permanent memories, and cherish them forever in my heart. Lost
in the bliss flowing from the seamless union between Heaven and
Earth, I feel like being part of the infinite Spirit. Time sails
by, like a distant ship, silently vanishing into thin air beyond
the horizon. The eastern sky, aglow with its multi-colored clouds,
casts a spell over me. What a breath-taking sunset!
As the rising tide washes over my bared feet,
a sense of wonder sweeps over me. I feel as free as the seagull
hovering over the crest of gentle waves. I luxuriate in my newfound
freedom. It is hard to delve into the deeper meanings of responsibility,
when I am here, on that far-flung idyllic island, untouched by civilization
and untouchable by time, the dream getaway.
But, I have no illusions that life can be a
never-ending vacation. I know that my escape from responsibility
is only temporary. Yes, I must return to my work and the uncompromising
demands of living in a complicated and dangerous world. I must return
to my punishing schedule of writing and the ever-present deadlines.
Yes, I have to write an article on responsibility right after my
Oh, responsibility, that weighty and wretched
word! It makes people feel uneasy, anxious, and guilty; it can even
drive one insane. Like a bloodhound, it dogs our every step, no
matter where we go. We just can't get rid of it. For centuries,
it has been bandied about by teachers, parents, politicians, religious
leaders and every good citizen. Who can deny that responsibility
is beneficial to individuals and society? Yet, this R word has become
an over-worn and over-stretched sweater - it has lost its shape.
It doesn't seem to fit anymore.
What is the exact meaning of responsibility?
I must sort through the many ideas swirling inside my head. It is
worth the effort, because deep down I know that our survival in
this dangerous world depends on grasping the true meaning of this
The Twin Statues of Liberty and Responsibility
Statue of Liberty is such a powerful symbol. Thousands upon
thousands of "boat people" have been moved to tears as they catch
the first glimpse of that magnificent Lady in New York harbor. At
long last, America, land of the free!
July 4, 1986, America celebrated the 100th birthday of Lady Liberty.
With a glowing sunset in the background, President Ronald Reagan
declared, "We are the keepers of the flame of liberty; we hold it
high for the world to see."
But now, the dark clouds of terrorism are threatening
the symbol of freedom. How are we going to defend the flame of liberty?
If the major drama in the last century was the triumph of democracy
over totalitarianism, what then will be the story of the 21st century?
How can we win the war against international terrorism? Is it possible
that the exercise of responsible and compassionate freedom may be
more powerful than military might?
Elsewhere, I wrote: "Never in the history of
humanity had so many freedoms been won for the individual in so
many countries. Yet, liberty without responsibility poses the greatest
threat to democracy. Similarly, license and addiction pose the greatest
threat to personal and community health. Dr. Viktor Frankl has long
contended that meaningful living is predicated on the exercise of
freedom of choice and personal responsibility. To Dr. Frankl, responsibility
entails responding to the demand of meaning unique in each situation."
One of Dr. Frankl's unfulfilled dreams is to
erect a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast of America, to
remind people that liberty cannot be separated from responsibility.
Freedom without responsibility is like a ship without a rudder,
promising the shortest path towards destruction. Responsibility
without freedom is a like a ship hijacked by terrorists, promising
a long journey into the night of slavery and fear.
This new statue can be powerful reminder of
the fragility of democracy without responsibility. This monument
of responsibility, imaginary as it may, will symbolize the highest
virtue and brightest hope for humanity.
Can you visualize the statue? Is it going to
be a scientist wearing a lab coat, or a mother carrying a baby in
her arm? Or, will it be a sculpture of several individuals lifting
up a huge boulder? Which image will awaken in us a strong sense
Freedom of choice and personal responsibility
How to reconcile freedom with responsibility
has been one of the oldest philosophical questions. There are no
easy answers. However, we can begin with the recognition that personal
responsibility exists to the extent that there is freedom of choice.
With greater freedom comes greater responsibility.
Regardless of one's philosophical position on
the thorny issue of free will and determinism, we do experience
the freedom of choice in everyday living. Even in a restaurant,
we are confronted with the need to choose from a menu. Our choice
may have been shaped by culture and past experience, nevertheless,
we are conscious of our own intentions and actions.
It is in choices and actions, not in words and
thoughts, that we reveal our authentic self. For instance, by choosing
to do the right thing on a daily basis, we reveal our integrity.
For sure, there will be pressures and temptations to lie, to scheme
and betray our friends. If we choose expedience over principle,
we would declare our moral bankruptcy.
In spite of his dark and pessimistic view of
life, Jean Paul Sartre has made a truly significant contribution
to positive existential psychology -- he affirms the limitless possibilities
of individual freedom. To Sartre, freedom is the fountain of hope,
the foundation of all human values in an absurd and chaotic world.
Freedom constitutes us as human beings. Freedom, not biology, is
our destiny. Through the exercise of freedom, we can transcend our
genes, our past history and the environment. Our
capacity to choose how we exist determines what kind of people we
will become. Thus, "existence precedes essence".
Responsibility simply means response-ability
or the ability to respond. We have the ability to respond to life's
demands, whatever they may be. Every situation, even the most oppressive
situation, offers us the freedom to choose. Frankl (1984) has made
the often quoted statement: "Everything can be taken from a man
but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude
in any give set of circumstances"
This lofty view of freedom ensures human dignity
and lasting hope, regardless of the situation. With freedom, everything
seems possible and every dream can come true. We choose, therefore,
we exist. We cannot escape from the reality of having to make choices.
Deciding not to choose is still a choice. Since there is no escape
from freedom, we might as well learn to use it wisely.
The real issue in life is not what happens
to us, but how we choose to react; not what circumstances we are
in, but how we choose to live in these circumstances. It is in choosing
that we reveal our humanity or lack of it.
How empowering the gift of freedom! At the same
time, how sobering it is to realize the awesome responsibility freedom
entails. Since we do the choosing, we are responsible for the consequences
of our actions. The immutable law of action and consequence operates
in the natural realm as well as in the spiritual sphere.
While advocating individual freedom, Sartre
(1973) also emphasizes social responsibility. We are responsible
for the disadvantaged and disfranchised. Our humanity is measured
and judged by our commitment to helping those who are unable to
help themselves. Therefore, the advice "To thine own self be true"
(Shakespeare) needs to be balanced by Jesus' command: "Love your
neighbor as yourself".
Remember the holocaust and all the victims of
brutal oppressions and atrocities. Think of the dying children in
AIDS-ravaged sub-Sahara Africa. The Others are not strangers; they
are Us, because we all participate in human suffering. Our civilization
cannot long survive without realizing the imperative of responsibility.
When we learn to fully appreciate the gift
of freedom, not only as an inalienable human right, but also as
the innate human capacity, then we are on our way towards creating
compassionate, responsible society.
The decline of personal responsibility
Many anxious parents have said to me: "We are
really worried about our teen-aged children. They don't clean their
rooms; they don't do their share of house chores; they don't do
their homework. All they want is to go out with their friends, doing
whatever that is exciting. We can't be sure, but we suspect that
they are having sex and using drugs. We just don't have a good feeling
about the kind of people they hang around with. What can we do to
knock some sense of responsibility into their heads?"
Could this be a sign of the times? Is it possible
that personal responsibility is on the decline? The most glaring
example is the abuse of the freedom on the Internet. Everyday, I
have to battle the "viruses" and "spams" that infect my computer,
thanks to the creative genius of hackers. What motivates these people
to create havoc for innocent people? Is it their misguided enthusiasm
to punish multinational corporations or is it simply their evil
desire to flex their muscles?
All through history, most of the calamities
and tragedies are due to the dark side of humanity rather than natural
causes. Endless wars, genocides, murders, violence, pollution and
poverty are not the acts of God; they originate from the human mind,
blinded by greed, ambition and ignorance.
By the same token, most of our everyday problems
result from our failing to take personal responsibility. Often,
those who experience the most troubles tend to be the loudest in
complaining about others. In short, we have created a culture of
blame and a nation of victimhood.
Old values have been jettisoned and authority
figures rejected, with nothing to replace them. The enduring themes
of history have given way to the trivialities of Reality T.V. Long
forgotten are the true heroes who have moved the nations with their
words, and changed the course of history for the better with their
deeds. In their place, we have installed celebrity icons who dispense
trinkets to adoring fans for millions of dollars in return.
In this cultural shift, responsibility has become
the first casualty. People clamor for rights without duties, benefits
without contributions, and comforts without sacrifices. Politicians
feed into this mentality of entitlement in order to buy votes. In
the midst of this moral vacuum, a general call to responsibility
seems just as good a remedy as any of the more ambitious paradigms
for social change.
Will anyone listen? Does anyone care? Let all
the freedom lovers lend me their ears! Freedom is a fragile gift
that needs protection! Just as liberty is the antidote against totalitarianism,
so is responsibility the antidote against terrorism. Responsibility
is pivotal to any free, democratic society. When we shun responsibility,
our social fabric will disintegrate, and the foundation of our democracy
will crumble. The responsible exercise of freedom has global implications!
The restoration of personal responsibility
In the final analysis, we are all responsible
for what we do with our lives and what happens in our society. Nothing
will change this fact, whether we believe it or not.
All of us are confronted with the fundamental
choice: (a) Blame others for our miseries and wallow in self-pity,
or (b) Assume full responsibility for our existence and our future.
Some may disagree: "But people may become victims
of the horrible events of the epoch in which they live. The tidal
waves of oppression and deprivation leave individuals totally helpless
and hopeless. Just look at the recent ethnic cleansing in Sudan,
where hundreds of thousands have been murdered and close to a million
people have been displaced. What choices do they have?"
Viktor Frankl would answer: "Yes, but they still
have the freedom of choice. They can choose to adopt a heroic attitude
and maintain their dignity and hope, in spite of the horrors they
experience." He should know, because he has survived the holocaust
and Nazi concentration camps.
Still some naysayer may argue: "You have no
idea what I have gone through. When I was still a child, I was sexually
abused by an alcoholic father and given drug by my mother who was
a hooker. Have been abused by other men. Never had a break. I have
no education, no skills, no nothing. I am an addict and a hooker.
And I have AIDS. Life has dealt me a rotten hand. It is simply not
fair. It's not my fault that my life is such a mess. There is nothing
I can do. No matter how hard I try, nothing has ever changed."
True enough, life is not fair. Some are born
to an abusive family in a war-torn country, while others are born
into a loving family in peaceful and prosperous nation. Still, we
have a choice.
Whenever we choose to blame others, no matter
how legitimate, we give away our power to control our own destiny,
and remain stuck in our miseries. This does not sound like a good
On the other hand, if we are really sick and
tired of feeling helpless, miserable and fearful, and want to regain
control of our lives, then hope beckons. And hope begins with assuming
responsibility for our future.
This fundamental choice exists for everyone,
including frustrated parents, traumatized victims, desperate addicts
and disgruntled citizens. Whatever their circumstances, all people
have the same fundamental choice. There is no escape, no getting
away from it. Delaying the decision simply means choosing failure
However, when one dares to choose responsibility,
one needs to be prepared for the arduous journey ahead. It is never
easy to live responsibly, but the alternative is way worse. Only
in carrying out our responsibility toward self and others, regardless
of the cost, that we find fulfillment and selfhood.
Seven basic steps towards responsibility
Here are some basic steps to develop a sense
of responsibility. These steps need not be followed in the sequence
as they are listed, but every step needs to be included in order
to experience the transformation.
- Acknowledge the law of cause and effect
- Accept the limitations of self and circumstances
- Affirm the positive potentials of our life
- Stop blaming others and feeling sorry for
- Start accepting full responsibility for our
choices and actions
- Hold ourselves accountable to others and
the Higher Power
- Love our neighbors and help others
1. Acknowledge the law of cause and effect
Call it the principle of reinforcement or the
law of karma. No matter how we conceptualize it, it remains the
most powerful empirical law of human behavior - there are consequences
to our actions! Yes, we always reap what we sow, whether we realize
it or not.
When individuals grow up in an environment,
where there is no contingency between behavior and consequence,
they are likely to become helpless and irresponsible. Therefore,
parents are doing their children a serious disservice, if they protect
their children from experiencing negative consequences by bailing
them out over and over again.
The sooner we acknowledge the law of cause and
effect, the better. There are always consequences for our decisions
and actions, even when the acts are committed in secrecy. The contingency
may not be apparent right away, but eventually we will harvest what
we have sown in ways we have not anticipated. From the Buddhist
perspective (Hsing Yun, 2004), karma may operate in future generations
and future lives.
It is equally important to realize that what
we do also affects others, especially those who are close to us.
The argument that "I can live anyway I want with my life" is valid
only when one lives in a remote isolated island. When we are part
of an invisible web of interconnections, whatever we do will affect
2. Accept the limitations
This is probably the most painful and difficult
step. Before we can come to the place of acceptance, we have to
recognize and dismantle our defense mechanisms and the many layers
of masks we wear.
It can be very unsettling and threatening to
confront our own shadows, but these shadows will forever follow
us, until they are exposed to the light. We have to deal with our
weaknesses, blind spots, failures, mistakes, insecurity, pride,
shame, guilt, and a host of personal issues honestly and harshly.
We need to confront our worst fears and worst nightmares. Otherwise,
we will be forever running away and hiding from ourselves, which
is a painful impossibility.
Often, one wrong decision leads to another.
Each wrong step takes us further and further away and it becomes
harder and harder to go back to where we started. It is not possible
to retrace all the wrong steps and undo all the wrongs. But fear
not; remember Jesus' parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-30).
All it takes is to acknowledging our lostness and start the first
step of returning to our rightful place.
It hurts a great deal when we have to confront
and embrace all that we hate about ourselves. But there is no easier
way. We just have to go back to "ground zero" and pick up the pieces,
if we want to find healing and redemption.
We also need to accept the reality of our circumstances.
No more denial, no more whitewash. We need to know how bad the situation
really is and then face the truth unflinchingly. Whatever cannot
kill us makes us stronger.
From a larger perspective, we need to embrace
the heart of darkness, the unbearable burden of our history, the
horrors of a million innocent deaths, the unspeakable evils of tyranny,
the bottomless abyss of human suffering…The endless drumbeats of
terrors and killings hammer a thousand nails into our hearts. But
that is part of being human.
In sum, we have to own up what is wrong in order
to fix it. It is our willingness to accept the enormity of the human
problems that tests our resolve and courage to move forward.
3. Affirm the positive potential
Acceptance without affirmation will eventually
lead to despair. Affirmation is not simply positive self-talk. Nor
is it belief in an illusion. Rather, it is a deep-seated conviction
that there is something good in life that is worth fighting for,
that there is positive meaning to be fulfilled (Frankl, 1984).
Affirmation is also based on confidence in our
own abilities and potential for growth. Whatever our deficiencies,
we can always find remedies. No matter how serious our defects,
we can always improve. It may take years, but any progress is better
than getting stuck.
To the faithful, affirmation can be based on
an unshakable faith in God. The belief that God will deliver us
from all our enemies can be a powerful source of solace and hope.
With God, all things are possible. But belief is a choice.
4. Stop blaming others
Once we have gone through acceptance and affirmation,
we begin the see the folly of blaming others for our problems. How
easy it is for us to curse Heaven and earth, and condemn the whole
world for our misfortunes. Blaming can be a form of catharsis -
it makes us feel better without solving any problem. It is time
to let go the baggage of our anger and resentment towards those
who have harmed us in order to get on with out lives.
Yes, people can be very mean. Yes, society is
very unfair. Yes, we have been treated very badly. Yes, we have
every reason to complain. But we need to focus on how to achieve
our life goals, and make sure that our enemies do not decide our
5. Start accepting full responsibility
Now, we are ready to do serious business with
ourselves. We now have to decide how we want to live and what will
become of us. Will we make something of ourselves or will we spend
the rest of our lives as a quitter, a loser and complainer? Just
think about all the exciting choices before us:
- Attitude is a choice
- Happiness is a choice
- Health is a choice
- Success is a choice
- Serenity is a choice
- Faith is a choice
- Relationship is a choice
- Marriage is a choice
- Parenting is a choice
- Leadership is a choice
- Integrity is a choice
- Optimism is a choice
- Everything of significance is choice
Better still, we choose not only our everyday
life and but also our destiny. Making responsible choices is a daily
discipline. Good intention is never good enough. We need to follow
through with action.
Once we have decided on the direction of our
future, we begin to do what is necessary in order to overcome problems
and achieve our goals. Be prepared for failures and setbacks and
whatever consequences. Be prepared to fight the uphill battle all
alone. Practice tough-mindedness and the occasional teeth-clenching
determination. There can be no turning back.
Assuming responsibility can be a lonely and
terrifying job. In our inner secret chamber, we alone make the decisions.
Others may point a gun to our heads and force us to do their bidding.
They may even subject us to physical torture. But they cannot kill
our spirit. Nor can they gain entry to our inner most sanctuary.
We choose, therefore, we exist.
6. Hold ourselves accountable
Accountability is the only way to ensure the
proper exercise of responsibility. No sooner had we thought that
we could do whatever we want without having to give account to anyone,
than we begin the slippery road to perdition.
Freedom flourishes only within boundaries of
law and order as well as moral constraints. After the Enron debacle,
American corporations have begun to learn the important lessons
of openness, transparency and accountability.
At time, we may deceive ourselves in thinking
that no one will ever find out. But our sins will always find us
all, sooner or later. It is helpful to remind ourselves that one
day we will have to give an account of our lives before our Maker.
7. Love our neighbors
Jesus says: "Love your neighbor as yourself".
When asked, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan
- one of those half-bred, despised and shun by the Jews - rescued
by a Levite (Luke: 10: 25-37). The implication is that the neighbor
is someone to whom we extend love and help.
Buddhism teaches that we need to love all sentient
beings. We have the responsibility to spread the message of enlightenment
and deliver them from the sea of suffering.
All faith traditions and moral philosophies
teach the importance of helping the needed. The underlying assumption
is that we are all interconnected. No one can live independently
of others. The law of cause and effect operates collectively because
of our interdependence. Thus, we come full circle, back to the first
step of responsibility.
We have the power to recreate and transform
ourselves, but we need to assume full responsibility for our own
future. Even when we seek help from professionals or pray to God
for healing, it is still because we choose to. Yes, there are always
risks involved in taking charge of our own lives, but the alternative
is no life, no future. The choice is yours.
Another take-home message is that life is a
team sport. Life can be very fulfilling only when there is mutual
trust and everyone does his or her part. Performance of the entire
team is affected, whenever some team members falter.
A sense of responsibility demands that we love
our neighbors, even those in the most remote corner of the world.
Only in embracing this global vision, can we save Ourselves and
Others. The exercise of responsible and humanistic freedom may be
our best guarantee against terrorism.
Bible, New International
Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Hsing Yun (2004). Living
affinity: Nurturing the environment, our relationships and the life
of the Spirit. New York, NY: Lantern Books.
Frankl, V. (1984). Man's
search for meaning: Revised and updated. New York, NY: Pocket
Sartre, J. P. (1973). Existentialism
and humanism. New York: Eyre Methuen.
Shakespeare, W. (1998). Hamlet
Act I, Scene iii. Oxford: Oxford University Press