Taking Deep Responsibility is Rare – and Transforms ordinary lives too


I don’t know why, but we have a fascination with courtroom drama, ranging from reality TV in South Africa to Perry Mason who never lost a case.  But the most gripping story is perhaps the oldest, from Homer. It’s the trial of Orestes.  The story starts when his mother, Clytemnestra has an affair.  She and her lover murder her husband Agamemnon, the father of Orestes.  Now the son faces an impossible dilemma – does he avenge his father by killing his mother, or fail to avenge his father?  Orestes goes ahead and murders Clytemnestra, and her lover as well for good measure.

The gods decide that matricide can’t go unpunished, so they curses him with attention from the Furies, nasty harpies who gave him hallucinations, cackled continually in his ear, and drove him to the edge of madness.  Finally Orestes asked for a trial, to put him out of his misery one way or the other. Orestes was given a smooth-talking, persuasive attorney – in fact, the god Apollo, who argued that Orestes hadn’t really any choice in the matter – he had to avenge his father’s deliberate murder, no matter who the person he had to kill.  If anyone was to blame, it was the gods, for testing him in this way.  So Orestes should be acquitted.

This is one of those dramatic moments in the court prefaced by mood-stirring music.  Orestes jumps up and denounces his own defender. “It was I, not the gods,” he shouts out defiantly, “who murdered my mother.  It was I who did this.”

The Verdict

The president of the court said it was high time to decide the verdict, and the gods went off to deliberate.   As the verdict was read out, the silence in court was oppressive.  “Because you have taken responsibility for your action,” the president started ominously – cut to Orestes looking grim and apprehensive, as the president took a long pause.  “Because you took responsibility,” he eventually continued, “the verdict of this court is … that the curse shall be immediately lifted from you.  The Furies surrounding you shall be turned into bearers of grace, the voice of wisdom around you.”

Commenting on the story, the psychotherapist and self-help writer Dr Scott Peck says, “This myth represents the transformation of mental illness into extraordinary health.  And the price of such a marvellous transformation is accepting the responsibility for ourselves and our behaviour.”

Taking Deep Responsibility is Rare – and Transforms ordinary lives too

I’m sure Scott Peck is right at one level.  But I think the myth speaks about mentally healthy people too.  The story is exceptional, because Orestes takes responsibility in unique circumstances, when the general public at the time would certainly have excused his action.  A similar story of extreme circumstances, but this time a true story, is that of another psychotherapist, Dr Viktor Frankl, who was thrown into concentration camps by the Nazis.  In his incredibly moving account, he felt that even in Auschwitz, prisoners could take responsibility for their lives – or give up.  He tells of a few inmates who would go through the camps, giving up their last cigarette, offering comfort, and finding meaning even in insufferable conditions.  In his own case, he determined that he would not be a victim, and sought purpose in committing to memory the book he had written which was confiscated and destroyed, so that he could rewrite it after leaving the camp.  He conjured up the fantasy of lecturing to audiences about his experiences and ideas, which were all to do with taking responsibility.

So it came to pass. Frankl’s wife and other relations all died in the camps.  But Viktor survived, wrote his book, and indeed went on a long lecture tour.  Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the shortest self-help books ever written, but in my opinion it is absolutely the best.  If a person can take responsibility in a camp, surrounded by evil of the most callous kind, then whatever suffering we endure, whatever problems we face, tend to pale in comparison.  I always try to think of that when I am feeling sorry for myself – and tell myself to take responsibility.  It is hard not to cheer up when you think of Auschwitz.


Where is The Statue of Responsibility?

One of Frankl’s suggestions was that the Statue of Liberty off New York should be complemented by a Statue of Responsibility off the West Coast.  I hope that will come true one day.

But why do I say that taking deep responsibility is rare?  Because when I look at myself, most of the time I am not really taking responsibility.  I’m going about my daily tasks, coping with good and bad fortune, getting things done – but I’m not really thinking about the grand plan – the purpose – what is it all for?  And if that is true about me, when I don’t have the pressures that most people have – I’m self-employed and have unusual freedom to do what I want – surely it must be true of most other people as well?  Because “deep responsibility” is not just accepting that our actions have consequences, and we will answer for them, but a more fundamental kind of responsibility – to make the most of our talents and our lives.  It is the answer to the question, “What sort of person could I become?” and works toward realizing the very best, most fulfilled person we could be.  Deep responsibility implied deep ambition – the decision not just to carry out our tasks, but to take responsibility for who we could be.  This decision is not far away from the idea of religious conversion – the once-for-all determination to take our lives, our talents, and our opportunities seriously, and to make the most of them.


Deep Responsibility in Business and Careers

This means two things:

  1. Being deeply committed to your own development – to be the best _________ (fill in the blank).  To mean anything this has to be a unique aspiration.  What is yours?
  2. Being deeply committed to a specific result in your work for the next week/month/year – something you feel uniquely qualified to do, that is still a stretch.

In my experience, most managers in large companies find it hard to define these two things.  If that applies to you, consider joining a smaller, younger company or a start-up.   There, it’s so much easier to define your two deep responsibilities, and have them in sync with the organization.


The Optimism of Deep Responsibility

Whether in business or our own lives, taking responsibility is hard and rare.  It requires facing up to decisions we would prefer not to take.  Yet it is also uplifting and optimistic.  Unpleasant reality can be faced – just as Orestes faced it – and transcended.  Only if we take responsibility can we command respect and find inner strength – and strength from outside, from friends and allies, from the world around us.  By accepting the grace and wisdom around us, we are helped to deploy our own unique contribution.

In business, taking responsibility means discarding excuses.  We don’t blame the competition, the market, the weather – or our own organization.  We say instead, “I made this mistake,” – even if the mistake was common ground – “and I messed up.  But now I can un-mess-up.  I can find the solution – if not the first one, then the second, or the third …”

In our lives, it means knowing that there is an answer – because we decide.  We are not at the mercy of outside forces.  We can chart our own course – even in a concentration camp.  This takes courage of course, and thank God that I have never been tested in a serious way.  Taking responsibility also requires imagination, and thinking.  It is not easy.  But it is the only way to be fully alive, and as powerful as we can be.  We are powerful because we decide what we can do – and usually the answer is, more than we dreamed.


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