Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Being a good person despite bad outcomes

One of the most useful things I learned from Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline, is that bad outcomes often occur despite the good intentions of good people.

So often we work so hard to distance ourselves from bad events because we don't feel safe if we are associated with anything bad. It's fashionable to talk smart about responsibility and accountability, but we all know that it's not safe to be responsible. In our culture, to be responsible is to be guilty. In our culture, to be responsible is to be blamed. In our culture, to be responsible is to be a bad person.

Of course no one will sign up for that! It's a bad deal. No one wants to be labeled a bad person. But we label each other that way every day. Heck, we label ourselves that way. And then we wonder why no one will ever voluntarily admit responsibility for anything.

To say that bad events occur despite good people is one of those things we all think we know. If asked about it, we nod and say, "Oh, of course."

But do we behave as if we know that? How often do we behave as if we really believe that good people can remain good despite their participation in a series of unfortunate events? How often do we behave as if we, ourselves, really believe that we remain good despite our own participation in bad outcomes? If we really believe that, why do we still feel a need to distance ourselves from our participation in bad happenings?

There's another meaning to "responsible": Able to respond.

We can be responsible simply because we have the ability to respond.

In the first three chapters of The Fifth Discipline, Senge shows how any competent person can end up making poor decisions because of job descriptions, because of role expectations, and because of hidden assumptions.

Becoming comfortable with the idea that my worth as a person is separate from the events that happen around me brings an incredible sense of freedom. It's liberating!

I don't have to work so hard to distance myself from bad stuff that happens around me. I can acknowledge the bad stuff without dodging my ability to respond.

I can afford a computer and Internet access to write this because I participate in a global economy that brings harm to other people. I participate in a system that brings harm to people and to the planet that keeps us alive.

I am deeply disturbed by that system. I am deeply disturbed by the circumstances that perpetuate my participation. But I can acknowledge it because my goodness as a person is separate from the badness of that system.

I can acknowledge it because I can respond.

I learned that after reading The Fifth Discipline. And when I say "learn", I mean, I stopped nodding my head and pretending I knew it and I began to behave as if it mattered.



GreenSmile said...

I like this thought. I will see if I can find a copy of the book.
I have a fairly unscientific hunch that avoidance of "being" responsible comes from our child rearing practices. The reward for being honest when your folks asked who broke the glass should be a discussion of how that feels and how to avoid that happening again...but its more likely to be something between a reprimand, a tongue lashing or a spanking in some families. We get the behavior we teach.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Greensmile.

You noticed that I left out the "punishment" part of the trio of guilt, blame, and punishment. I usually do mention that in conversation about this topic, and I will probably put it in a future revision.

We get the behavior we teach. Funny how that seems to surprise us, even though it's what we think we want, eh?

Thanks for reading.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the thought provoking post.