Thursday, July 07, 2005

Reflections on Responsibility

I’m going to depart from usual themes today to make a few personal comments. In light of this morning’s news about terrorist attacks in London, it is plain that conflict is part of our world. Our President spoke plainly and truly about conflict this morning as he highlighted the contrasting position presented by those who choose to do this kind of evil. Taking the lives of innocent people in random acts of violence clearly fits in that category.

I believe our government’s policies against yielding to the terrorists have made life more difficult for them and for nations who tolerate them. The “hard” and “soft” principles applicable in other economic and social institutions also apply in political conflicts (thank Michael Barone for these concepts in his terrific book, Hard and Soft America). Libya’s decision to give up nuclear weapons is one example of a positive event that probably would not have happened if the United States had not shown itself capable of decisive action.

Efforts to begin democratic processes take time, but efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq can ultimately bring a new hope and freedom in areas which have experienced much oppression and suffering. However, it is easy to weaken and be critical when things like this happen. We don't know who is responsible yet, but it is likely that this effort is some protest against the UK involvement in war efforts which have been unpopular with many citizens. However, whether terrorist acts are effective ultimately depends in a significant part on the daily responses of individuals to their challenges – as well as other challenges – that life deals to us. In this sense, we all have some responsibility.

This concept is made clear in Viktor Frankl’s autobiographical reflection, Man’s Search for Meaning, which I happened to read last night. In the midst of horrific experiences of human suffering, Frankl concludes that human beings still have choices about how they react in any circumstances. “[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” He viewed this spiritual freedom as that which "makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

Choosing involves more than just talk, but also how we behave. Frankl made this observation about his life in the camps:

“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

Frankl’s approach toward human responsibility is difficult to embrace, particularly for us moderns who are used to expecting much from life and blaming others when it does not get delivered to us. He finds meaning in suffering – which is not exactly the stuff of which modern feel-good, self-help books are made. But his thoughts are worth considering as we decide individually how to respond to life’s challenges.

I have been privileged to be around people – such as my parents – for whom the manner of acting with responsibility in the face of life’s demands has been a regular part of their life. We can all do well to emulate their responses.


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