Thursday, March 31, 2011

Categories of Responsibilty

In our chain of present moments, each one appearing consecutively and then streaming behind us, there seem to be three kinds of things that we have to respond to.  I was thinking about this in the car yesterday, so I'm going to use car examples.

One is direct choices... I am driving and a car cuts in front of me.  I slam on the brakes, and hopefully don't mutter curses at the driver.  But I have a choice of some sort.   Suppose I accidentally rear-end him.  Then my task is to respond to an accident scene.   These choices are immediate.

Two is indirect choices.  Perhaps I am waiting in traffic and I run out of gas because I didn't fill the tank earlier in the day when I should have.  Or perhaps someone stops by my car to say hi and I'm embarrassed because of all the trash and food crumbs visible.    In these cases, I have already chosen earlier and I am dealing with consequences.   I am mentioning bad scenarios because these are the ones I usually notice.  When I do fill with gas, or clean the car, the results may not become apparent in such a shocking fashion.  But of course, good choices have consequences, too.

Three is things where there is no real choice, things that just happen.  ... the choice was somebody else's, or simply God's.   A drunk driver crosses the yellow line, a blizzard shuts down the road outside your house so you can't get out, your car dies mysteriously.   Probably the effects of some of these things could be somewhat forestalled by preparation, but not completely, and the cause is from no choice of yours.

In reality,these three types of happenings are on a continuum, and sometimes it is vexing to try to figure out what is in your control or not.   Sometimes one feels guilty for something that isn't really under one's human control ("if I hadn't been driving on this road I wouldn't have gotten into this crash!").   Sometimes one blames fate for things that are really due to one's own previous choices ("I can't help swearing at those drivers, I come from a line of hot-tempered people"  "What bad luck that I ran out of gas in traffic, everything always happens to me!").

The point I am pondering is how to react to these things.   Father Caussade says that in the present moment, you do what presents itself as your duty, and you accept or suffer cheerfully what you have no present choice about.   If I run out of gas, even if it was partly my own fault, I can take the event with resignation, accepting the cross from God's hands (easier said than done, of course).   But in future perhaps I should make sure I don't get under the quarter-tank level. 

To respond to things peacefully and wisely in this way is Prudence, which I don't have naturally.  I suppose few people do, since it comes from reflecting on experience and principles and applying the understanding to future events.  In my case feelings of guilt and perfectionism cloud the picture.  When something happens it feels like a scolding from God and I just curl into a ball rather than accept and learn.   I suppose it is basically pride -- I don't like coming up short, and bad things happening seem to equate with coming up short. 

I think this is where the "examen" comes in that St Ignatius recommended along with many other spiritual directors.  In the present moment, it's important to gaze clearly at the choices and do the best one can in the moment.  But when the event is over and one has time to reflect (perhaps at the end of the day) one can perhaps think "was this partly under my control?"  "is there anything I could do differently in future?"

Goal-setting books often talk about taking time on a daily, weekly, monthly or yearly basis to check in and see how one's goals are being approached, and this seems wise because over time, you see what's causing obstacles and what's helping you do better.

1 comment:

  1. Willa, I read somewhere that one essential aspect of prudence is remembering what has happened accurately, or truthfully. The more objective our assessment is of our own actions and consequences, the more wisely and well we can make the changes we need to make so (preventable) negative consequences don't occur. I think this is the hardest aspect of growing in prudence...setting aside our own emotional response, all that false guilt or pride or despair, and being objective! May God give us the grace to see what we need to do...and to do it,too!


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