President's Column - August 2004

The Meaning of Responsibility and the Statue of Liberty
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
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.

Being 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 brief vacation.

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 ideal.

The Twin Statues of Liberty and Responsibility

The 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!

On 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 of responsibility?

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 choice.

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 and fear.

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.

  1. Acknowledge the law of cause and effect
  2. Accept the limitations of self and circumstances
  3. Affirm the positive potentials of our life
  4. Stop blaming others and feeling sorry for ourselves
  5. Start accepting full responsibility for our choices and actions
  6. Hold ourselves accountable to others and the Higher Power
  7. 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 others.

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 future.

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 Books.

Sartre, J. P. (1973). Existentialism and humanism. New York: Eyre Methuen.

Shakespeare, W. (1998). Hamlet Act I, Scene iii. Oxford: Oxford University Press