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98. From Powerlessness to Responsibility

In the beginning there was powerlessness, because we had no control over the circumstances we were born into, and because there was powerlessness there was compassion, because we suffer for reasons that are outside of our control. But we are also adults and adults take responsibility for themselves. Our problem is that it isn't always clear where powerlessness ends and responsibility starts. This week's tip explores. 'You can't blame anything on your parents once you're past the age of 25' Julian Barnes, in England England A few days ago I had an email from a friend. She was recommending a book, 'Awareness', by Anthony de Mello. Her recommendations are usually good (because of her I read The Cellist of Sarajevo and The Other Hand) so I looked it up. I have a library of books at home that I haven't read so I didn't order it, but I did have a look on youtube to see if I could get an idea of where this man was coming from. There I found some videos of him giving talks to a variety of audiences. Anthony de Mello was a Jesuit priest, spiritual teacher and writer who died young in 1987. Listening to his talks, his approach to spirituality seems much closer to eastern philosophy and modern psychology than Catholicism, and indeed the catholic church, reviewing his teachings some ten years after his death, deemed that some of his positions were 'incompatible with the Catholic faith'. The talks on youtube are all getting on for thirty years old, so it is interesting to find that what he is saying sounds as fresh as if it were spoken by a modern-day psychologist. One that interested me, entitled 'Wake Up!' was, to my surprise, not about God or enlightenment but about responsibility. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q57cFQkbBJQ. The 'waking up' is to do with realizing that our emotional reactions are ours and only ours, and cannot and should not be laid at the door of other people. This comes as a great disappointment to many us. After all, people do things, we get upset, surely it's their fault? To hear that actually it is neither their fault nor their responsibility, but our own, is unpalatable to say the least. And if that is not challenging enough, try this from Eckhart Tolle: 'Anything that you resent and strongly react to in another is also in you.' Eckhart Tolle, from 'A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose'. Not only are our reactions ours, he is saying, but they are invariably a reaction to something that we recognize in ourselves. I first heard this many years ago and happily dismissed it as nonsense. It might apply to other people, I laughingly reassured myself, but it certainly doesn't apply to me. I thought of the people whose behavior I couldn't abide and thought, no, absolutely not, I am not like them. It was a very long time before I started to understand. While I had accepted more readily that the things I admired in others were often present to some degree in myself - that was quite an uplifting realization - the idea that the things I disliked in people were also lurking in me was too distasteful to contemplate. But I began to get it when I realized that the things we dislike in other people are not ones that we exhibit consciously in our daily lives - they are things we don't like so why would we? No, they are characteristics that we emphatically don't like, that we have rejected in ourselves. For that reason we may have very little awareness of them; we may not have said 'hello' to each other for many years. But just think, if you can't stand bossy people, perhaps there's a part of you that would rather like it if everyone did what you told them? If you don't like people who gossip unkindly about people, can you really say that there is not a part of you that likes to do that? If you hate people who are messy, is there, somewhere inside you, an inner slob that you suffocated when you found out that people are rather judgmental about slobs? And if you deride people who express their feelings too much, is there a vulnerable part of you that you can't bear to acknowledge? People can't annoy or hurt us unless there is something there to be hurt. If you are a man who is six feet three inches tall and somebody says, 'Goodness, you're tall!' you may be pleased, indifferent because people often comment, or maybe curious as to why someone would say that. If you are a woman of six feet three inches tall and someone says the same thing, the reaction is likely to be very different. It may make you feel uncomfortable about your height, you may suddenly feel big and ungainly, or sad and lacking in confidence. That can only happen, though, if you are already uncomfortable about your height. If you're Sharapova and owe some of your tennis success to your height, it's unlikely that you will react that way. Nevertheless, if you react badly the chances are that you will lay at least some blame for those feelings on the person who so insensitively made that remark. We react to other people because they trigger negative feelings that we already have towards ourselves. Those reactions are our responsibility, not theirs. We can't help reacting, we are wired that way and it is not our fault, but our reactions and what we do with them are our responsibility. That is the answer to the question. There is one great advantage in taking responsibility for our reactions - we have a chance of resolving them. While we blame others, we do not, we are giving all our power to them. As Anthony de Mello says, if you're in a queue and someone pushes in, why would you then punish yourself further by getting angry and resentful? It's like hitting yourself over the head with a mallet, he says. Why would you do that to yourself? Try this: 1. Think of someone who has annoyed or upset you, preferably recently. It may be someone you who see often who repeatedly has this effect on you, or it may be a behavior that often has this effect, whoever it is doing it. 2. What exactly did they do, or fail to do, that so affected you? For example, someone at work didn't like your idea, or didn't do something they said they would do, or did it badly. Your partner or friend let you down in some way, your teenager failed to tidy their room - again, or your mother arrived and starting criticizing you. 3. Forgetting the other person now, how did you feel? Was the feeling hurt, rejection, when you're idea was not approved of? Did you feel ignored or mistreated when your partner let you down? Did you feel like a child again when your mother started criticizing you? Allow yourself to feel these feelings - they are yours and nothing to do with the other person. 4. What is the pattern here? What negative thoughts do you have towards yourself that are being triggered by this person? Do they make you feel unimportant, unworthy, incompetent, powerless, not very nice? Where did those feelings originate do you think? 5. Time for a reality check. Are those feelings and thoughts true? Are you incompetent, powerless, five years old, a horrible person? What is the evidence? Have a responsible week! love Anita