Where is the dividing line between our responsibilities and the tidal wave of fate? Where does self-forgiveness meet abdication or rejection of accountability? When we aren’t able to follow through on something for one reason or another, when is it understandable and when is it a lapse of duty? In other words, when are we excused, when are we let off the hook, when can we blame others, and when is it really just our problem? A life of integrity absolutely demands strong policy choices around these matters.
The decision to accept total accountability is a radical and extremely powerful act. It’s scary and demanding. It requires a humble spirit to rip the dirty old bandages off our psychic wounds and look at them with a discerning eye. Like all decisions, though, it’s freeing. Accepting total responsibility for your life means an end to all manner of squirming and equivocating and waffling and whining. All that is left is clarity and resolute purpose.
What does total accountability mean?
It’s often said that we are supposedly 100% responsible for everything that happens in our lives. This is a wrong thought and a dumb one. Is an entire country responsible for a natural disaster like a typhoon? Are parents responsible for a murderer killing their child? If you say yes to either of those questions, you are a terrible person. I’ll look you straight in the eye and tell you that. Fate brings us completely unfair, unpredictable, unpreventable burdens. It’s destiny that we control. We’re not responsible for the volcanos or tornados or earthquakes or murders or mudslides. Where our responsibility becomes relevant is in our response to the terrible vagaries of fate.
Now that I’ve clarified this, I can in good conscience talk about where we are 100% responsible for what happens to us, and that’s when we are living out the results of our own choices and behaviors. Almost every time, when we’re deep in struggle, it’s the completely unintentional result of something we’ve done, sometimes for years on end, not truly realizing that this would be the result. These are the problems we encounter in our relationships, in our careers, in our finances, and in our health. The degree to which we resist accepting our responsibility in these areas reflects the degree to which we continue to live in struggle.
Accepting total responsibility is the only way out.
The year my divorce was finalized, I paid 80% of my earnings to legal and medical bills. It sucked. I’ve earned more in one freelance check than I earned in the entire year of 2000. Not only did I have to deal with the divorce, a lawsuit, and some extremely frustrating medical problems, not only did I have no income until the case was settled, but I was also erroneously hit up for taxes on someone else’s income. It felt like all I did the entire year was write letters and make phone calls trying to resolve one Category Five problem or another. Not my fault, still my problem.
What the experience of living through a year of constant bitchslaps from fate can teach us is that we have the power and the fortitude to deal with stuff. I’m no longer afraid of the IRS; their customer service is fantastic. For nearly twenty years I’ve carried the bone-deep certainty that I must always prioritize my savings account and keep my insurance payments in good standing. I’ve been through worse than a series of bills, injuries, illness, and relationship collapse. I know I can carry myself through the vale of tears and come out alive on the other side. Problems that I used to rate a 10 I now consider more like a 3 or 4. The year 2000 was hardly the last time I endured a bad breakup, an injury, a series of bills, a stretch of unemployment, or the urgent need to move to a new home. It’s not even the last time I got an erroneous tax bill in the $8000 range. Bad things are going to happen in life, over and over and over again, fair or unfair, to us and to our friends and loved ones. We just have to knuckle down and deal with them.
It’s possible to forgive gross unfairness. All forgiveness means is that you come to an emotional agreement with yourself and a storyline about past events that makes sense to you. It does not mean that you excuse someone else’s unjust or cruel or selfish behavior. It does not mean you endorse systemic injustice. It just means you understand what happened and how the same thing could have happened to someone else in the same situation.
Like this: I married a man when we were both young, nobody told me he was mentally ill, and when my life got too challenging, he asked for a divorce. It makes total sense that someone with serious problems of his own would not be ready, willing, or able to stand by me while life threw me simultaneous health, legal, financial, and career problems. I forgive him. I don’t really even think about it anymore; really it only comes up when I think about forgiveness. When I think about him now, like on his birthday, I just hope he’s okay. I can almost even forgive myself for ever being so young and dumb that I thought marriage at 22 was a good idea.
All this being said, if we can forgive unfairness and injustice wrought upon us by others, can we forgive ourselves for being screwups? Can we let go of the guilt and shame of our worst mistakes? I think we can only do it when we know we have accepted the complete burden of responsibility and cleaned up our end of whatever happened. For instance, if my roommates bounced their rent check, it’s not my fault but it’s still my problem. It certainly isn’t the landlord’s fault! If I get into a fender bender and the other party lies about what happened, (which has happened to several people in my acquaintance), it may be wrong, but it’s still up to me to pay whatever the insurer refuses, or my credit will take the hit. I owe what I owe. I have my part to play in all of my relationships, including those of a familial, romantic, business, or financial nature. Just because I walked in blindly and trusted other entities to be scrupulously fair and honest does not absolve me of the responsibility of looking out for my interests.
Past Self had a lot of expensive problems. Past Me spent a lot of time crying herself to sleep over unpaid bills and working side hustles when other people were having fun at music festivals or traveling through Europe. Some of those same specific individuals are now in struggle, not having had to learn the same lessons about financial peril at such a comparatively young age.
When I was young, I was clueless and naive and sometimes irresponsible and unreliable. I hurt people’s feelings unintentionally. I associated with people whose values did not match mine. I often expected other people to pay my way and solve my problems. These are pretty much universal failings of young people throughout time. Now that I’m a mature adult, I pull my weight. I try to stay in constant remembrance of all the times my behavior has unfairly burdened other people, so I can balance my accounts and be the giver instead of the taker. I’m allowed to forgive Past Me for being something of a loser because I’ve paid my debts and made amends where I could.
Integrity means your word is your bond. You keep your promises and follow through. No excuses, no complaints. It’s better to say no 99.999999998% of the time than to say ‘yes’ and bail at the last minute. You show up and do what you said you would do. You fulfill your end of a contract. People can depend on you. If this has not always been true Because of Reasons, you can forgive yourself for this by accepting accountability. Make amends, but more importantly, stop giving your word out like Halloween candy. Stop making commitments until you’re sure you are rock solid and you can keep them. Taking on the burden of total accountability is a clean life, not an easy one but an acceptable one.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.