This morning, my 3-month-old Lucas and I went on our daily walk in Riverside Park and stopped to watch a soccer match. (I figure it's never too early to begin cultivating an obsession...)
Standing beside us was a family of four with their dog, straining at his leash. Before 9 a.m., dogs are allowed to run free in the park, so I assumed -- correctly, it turned out -- that perhaps theirs had an aggression issue.
Sure enough, moments later he attacked another dog that happened to run by. At which point the wife, clearly disgusted, said to her husband "it must be you... he never does that with me..."
I've always been intrigued by the word "responsibility" and how often it gets confused with blame, which of course implies that someone or something is at fault for a given situation. And it always has a pejorative flavor to it; no one opens up their arms and says, "bring on the blame!" Quite the contrary... while many love to give it, we're loathe to get it and will do almost anything to keep the hot potato of fault as far away from ourselves as possible.
Responsibility, on the other hand, to me is something vastly more powerful, as well as empowering. As the language suggests, it is a "response ability" -- the ability to choose our response in every moment to all that is going on around us. A choosing that allows us to claim ownership of the circumstances of our lives, and thereby, to contribute to making them better.
My heart dropped a bit when I heard the wife blame her husband for their dog's behavior. Not that I don't understand where she's coming from; we all know how easy and even tempting it can be to go that route... to say, "This is your mess... you clean it up."
The trouble is, messes are rarely made by one person.
In the world of blame, we miss this point. It seems far easier to tally up our perception of other people's behavior into columns of right, wrong, good and bad, judging and criticizing them all the way to the bank.
Yet by distancing ourselves from our own potential role in problems, we also disregard the possibility of our place in the solutions, as well as the joy and affinity that come from problem solving effectively together.
Owning that you might have had a hand in creating what's happening in the world around you doesn't make you a sucker. Nor does it mean that you're to blame for everything that's going on.
Rather, it means that you're mature enough to realize that only by claiming responsibility for your life can you live it in a way that both empowers you and brings you closer to others. A life which, in my mind, is the only one worth living.
Jennifer Hamady is a voice coach and psychotherapist specializing in technical and emotional issues that interfere with self-expression, as well as the author of "The Art of Singing: Discovering and Developing Your True Voice", heralded as a breakthrough in the psychology of musical and personal performance.