“Welcome to the age of self-management, it’s all on you from here.” It was said with a smile, but in a tone that makes the blood run cold. More truth held in the six words at the end of that sentence than I’d heard for quite some time. I was being given a choice about how to respond.
The infallible truth is, my life is a direct result of my choices and actions. Both poor and good choices construct a set of circumstances that I, and I alone, must take responsibility for. Regardless of how we interact with other individuals and how their choices may impact on us, our choices to respond to those circumstances lands the responsibility firmly in our own hands. Your life isn’t what happens to you, it’s how you respond.
This should be encouraging, affirming and life-giving, really. Yet there seems to be a reluctance amongst us to take hold of that responsibility so freely offered to us.
Bad behaviour is the domain of toddlers and teenagers, we don’t often talk about badly behaved adults. Maybe it’s because the word ‘behaviour’ takes us to uncomfortable places. To ‘behave’, is first to acknowledge some choice and control over our actions and words. If bad behaviour is the domain of the young and untrained, then adulthood is surely about learning to “grow up” and take responsibility for ourselves. It’s about managing ourselves, our influences, responses and proactive choices.
A True Life Story.
One of the horrors of 2012 was watching a dear friend lose her marriage through a bizarre, sad and tragic twist of bad behaviour. Also difficult was choosing how to respond to her husband, not just my own response but how I would feel about the response of others to him. My fury at his choices to willfully betray his wife and child, with nothing more than shame at being caught; would’ve seen me facing criminal charges had I been found in a dark alleyway with him. And whilst I couldn’t do it, I desperately wanted someone to take a stand and say, “You’re wrong, this is an unacceptable and immoral choice.” Still, few did, perhaps because we’re not sure how.
Perhaps it’s part of our very New Zealand-esque live-and-let-live mindset, that prevents us from speaking out when we see grownups behaving badly. It was thrown into sharp silhouette for me when I found myself in Texas some months later. I was recounting the story and my sadness, when my usually quiet friend asked why none of the perpetrators friends had taken him behind a shed somewhere, to physically drive home the point that his choices were abhorrent. My heart was stirred that someone else would want to take a stand on behalf of my beautiful friend and her daughter. But then I realized – it wasn’t taking a side for her at all.
My friend was making a stand for values. Not the type of moralistic conservatism that upholds a lack of gun control and denies gay marriage, but values that answer the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with ‘Yes, you must be, as must I.”
We’ve got no choice; inevitably we will be responsible for how we respond to life and how we heed the warnings we are given. Not to live in fear or shadows but to live well.
“As we mature and hurdle life’s trials and tribulations, we are constantly given opportunities to learn lessons and choose the right paths to follow. Our parents, teachers, friends, and neighbors, they all call our attention to what are essential in life. People and events caution us to act appropriately towards ourselves — to ensure our personal health and happiness. They warn us to act accordingly when dealing with each other — to promote fairness, kindness, and love. They advise us to respect the land, nature, diversity, peace, and life.
We get our “stern look” warnings from history, from the memory of our departed heroes and loved ones, and from the scars that previous generations have left on our world and in our hearts. But we ignore them.
We get our “audible” warnings from our counselors, coaches, motivational and inspirational figures, and religious leaders, who speak, write, and demonstrate how to behave properly.
But we challenge them, ignore them, refute them and try to disprove what the collected wisdom and understanding of the ages tells us.”
So what’s it going to take, to make us pay attention?
Some things are seasonal, we hit the skids, we face emotional, financial, relational trauma and we respond. Often to the last place we were familiar with. Someone facing a marriage breakup is suddenly thrown backwards to the turbulent waters of late adolescence, the last time they were single. Cue heightened sensationalism, an exaggerated lens of experience and the associated baggage of processing all that… chaos. And with adulthood, comes adult responsibilities: jobs, families, friends… a sense of who we are in the world as we relate to others. What’s it’s going to take, to make us pay attention to those responsibilities?
Of course, it’s not just in trauma that we can choose to act out. The associated bliss of distraction can be like a soothing balm on the everyday stress of life – whether it’s work, loneliness or just plain old dissatisfaction. What’s it going to take, to get my attention and pull me back from the brink of poor choices and bad behaviour? It’s too easy for me to sneak in after midnight each night of the week. No one watches my alcohol intake when I’m at home, no one monitors my tv & internet habits, no one checks my bank accounts and no one says… “I don’t like who you are when you spend time with these people.”
I hypothesize we need each other, in ways more compelling than what we realize. That we abscond our responsibilities to one another in lots of ways:
- There’s grace for this right now, because of ……
- It’s just a season
- They just need to get it out of their system
- I’d rather just listen and be there for them, I don’t want to push them away
- This is what they missed out on, give them a chance to blow off some steam
- It’s not really a big deal, that’s just how they are…
It’s actually a gift, to notice bad behaviour and then point it out. Because it’s to say to someone you care about; “I see you, I notice you, I notice the details and I care about you.” As my friend Al said, it’s actually about character which is demonstrated in the smallest things; like using please, thank you and learning to say I’m sorry. Anyone who’s ever employed somebody in their 20s, understands the importance of learning those simple words with good timing.
It doesn’t mean you’ll always find a willing ear to listen, but better to say something with kindness than to say nothing at all. And I don’t speak my mind to everyone; just the ones I care about and live with closely. It’s part of noticing them, listening to them and then reminding someone of who they are. We have a responsibility to be good storytellers for one another and to remind each other that we have to manage ourselves, no one else will do it for us but we can certainly help each other out. Telling each other the truth and being willing to walk that path, is far more intimate than turning a blind eye and stumbling alongside.
So …may I remind you and you, me:
- be kind to your wife/husband/partner
- be truthful with your friends
- learn to say I’m sorry and mean it
- learn to say yes and learn to say no
- love boundaries that keep you safe
- only have one lover at a time
- be kinder to your friends
- drink smart, eat right, exercise
- figure out your values and live them