Norsk kortversjon: Dette er en diskusjon om ansvar. Om at det å ta ansvar ikke er det samme som å påta seg Byrde, Skam, Skyld og Kritikk. (Her i Norge brukes uttrykket “å ta selvkritikk” – hvordan gjør man egentlig det?) Og konklusjonen er at for å ta ansvar, må vi ha vilje til å være kilden til livet vårt.
“Vilje er det som skjer når du kommer gjennom all motstanden, alle bortforklaringene, alt pisspratet. Det som er igjen, er interesse. Det er vilje. Ut av det, flommer alt annet.”
English summary: This is a discussion about responsibility.
The conclusion is that responsibility is not Blame, Shame, Burden, and Guilt, it is a willingness to be the source of your life.
“Willingness is what happens when you get past all the resistance, all the reasons, all the bullshit. What’s left is interest. That’s willingness. Out of willingness flows all the rest.”
With the author’s permission, I’m posting a chapter from “A Matter for Men”, book 1 in the “War Against the Chtorr” series. David Gerrold is an author whose books have made my brain crackle and pop and rearrange its perceptions, and this chapter most of all.
I read it when I was heavily involved in a Support Centre Against Incest, and it gave me an answer to the ubiquitous fear of “judging” people who were accused of child molestation.
I can safely recommend all his books, and I’ve recently ordered one I wasn’t aware of until now: ”The Martian Child”, based on the his own experiences as a single adoptive parent of a survivor of serious abuse.
The Last Day
“If God didn’t want men to masturbate, then why did he make the opposable thumb?
“If God didn’t want women to masturbate, then why did she make the middle finger longer?”
It was my worst nightmare.
Whitlaw was standing over my chair, looming like a mountain, glaring down at me and waiting for an answer to his question.
“So …McCarthy. What is responsibility?”
I didn’t have the slightest idea.
And I was certain that this was it—I would stammer something and it would be wrong and Whitlaw would finally lose patience and just kill me.
Or worse—he’d ravage me with one of his exquisitely sarcastic observations about my lack of intellectual capacity. And then I’d die of embarrassment.
Whitlaw had long ago stopped waiting for us to raise our hands. We didn’t. We thought that was the best way to avoid being held up to ridicule. But the man had us surrounded, and if we didn’t volunteer, then he’d start to call on us, one at a time. Today, he had lowered his voice to a shout—and he was demanding that we “participate in the process of our own lives.” You couldn’t tune him out.
That was the thing about Whitlaw’s class. There was no place to hide. If you sat in the back of the room, hoping not to be noticed, Whitlaw would stride to the back, take the comic book out of your hands, rip it up, and drop it in the trash. Then he’d move you to the front of the room.
His radar was unerring. If you went for more than three days without raising your hand to comment or to ask a question, he’d start calling on you. “Just checking to see if you’re still alive,” he’d say. “I’ve already given up all hope of intelligent discourse from this collection of somnambulists. Cabbages have more crunch than you do.”
On this particular day, he’d begun his attack with a diversionary maneuver. He’d said, “Let’s review what we’ve covered so far. You’ll remember that we determined that there really is no such thing as rights or freedom. What there is, is responsibility. Hmm,” he said, and stopped. He froze at the board, stylus still in hand. He turned back to us, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Responsibility. There’s an interesting word. We haven’t really defined it, have we?” He put the stylus down in the tray below the board and brushed nonexistent chalk dust from his hands; that’s how old he was.
He looked at me with a piercing expression. “I mean, we’ve talked about it all semester long. We’ve all used the word as if we’re agreed on what it means. But I don’t think we’re in agreement at all. I don’t think we’re all thinking of the same thing when we use the word responsibility—”
I was already starting to sweat. Some of these lectures could go on for a week or more. And this one had all the earmarks.
Whitlaw stepped past me. For a man with a limp, he could be surprisingly limber. He headed for the back of the room and I breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed in my chair.
“McCarthy,” he said, terrifyingly close behind me. He had turned and was studying the back of my head. “You start. What is responsibility?”
“Uh—” I squirmed around in my seat to face him. “Um—it’s, uh—the, um—”
“Yes …? Go on. I’ll wait.” Whitlaw spoke with the sweet dulcet tones of deliberately exaggerated patience. He was going to let me writhe on the hook until I died.
“—the obligation—” I seized the word. “—um, to—uh—”
“Obligation ….” Whitlaw repeated thoughtfully. “Hm. An interesting perception. The obligation.” He furrowed his brow and focused intently on me. “Perhaps the word you’re looking for is accountability.”
I felt my heart resume beating. I might survive this after all. “Yes.” I was a drowning man, grabbing eagerly for—an anvil.
Whitlaw’s expression was pitying and disappointed. He shook his head sadly and looked around to the rest of the class. “Accountability,” he said, with deep sorrow. “That’s what McCarthy thinks responsibility is. Accountability.” He rubbed his hands together in a Uriah Heep gesture—but the way Whitlaw did it was much more like a praying mantis preparing to dine.
Oh, no …
Whitlaw tsked. He began counting off on his fingers. Finger number one: “Blame. That’s what McCarthy thinks responsibility is. ‘Who’s responsible for this mess? Who can we blame?’ “ Finger number two: “Shame. Or perhaps McCarthy thinks responsibility is shame. ‘This was your responsibility, McCarthy. Look how it turned out. Aren’t you ashamed?’ “ Finger number three: “Burden. ‘All right, who’s willing to accept this responsibility? Who’s willing to take on this particularly onerous task?’ “
I was dying in my chair and praying, Please, God, let him not have six fingers. Finger number four: “Guilt.” He looked at me with an expression previously seen only on the countenances of “hanging judges.” He repeated it. “Guilt. ‘This is your responsibility.’ Is that what you think responsibility is, McCarthy? Blame, shame, burden, or guilt?”
“Yes, it is. That’s what you all think responsibility is. You see it as a chore, not a challenge. You see it as a problem. A burden. Something to be avoided. This is the American mantra. ‘It’s not my fault.’ Or: ‘Sorry, sir. That’s not my table.’ Or: ‘You’ll have to take that upstairs. We don’t handle that here.’ Or: ‘Sorry, I don’t want to get involved.’
“Do you know what that translates out to? ‘Blame somebody else first. Blame anybody but me.’ You sound like Republicans. ‘Blame the Democrats first.’ You sound like Democrats. ‘Blame the President first.’ You sound like the President. ‘Blame the Congress first.’ You sound like everybody else in the world. None of you are willing to take on any responsibility—and then you have the gall to complain about the fact that nothing seems to work right. Because when you hear the word responsibility, you hear blame, shame, burden, and guilt.” Whitlaw snorted. “And you don’t want any of that stuff, do you?”
He put one hand on my shoulder. It felt just like a brontosaurus leg, only heavier. “Right, McCarthy?” he asked.
“Uh, right,” I squeaked.
“Right,” he agreed. “You’re just saying that to agree with me—in the futile hope that I will leave you alone and pick on someone else, right?”
“Mm, I thought so.” Whitlaw stumped back to the front of the room. “Your language is out of control. You have connected the wrong meanings to the words. I talk about responsibility and you hear blame, shame, burden, and guilt. Sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it? Blame, Shame, Burden, and Guilt. In fact, that’s where you end up—dealing with lawyers—when you confuse the language; because when you confuse the language, you confuse the communication. But I don’t want any lawyers in the room. I want clarity. I want a precise definition of the word—a definition so precise that it will transform your whole experience of what responsibility really is.” He looked out over the class. “Anyone brave enough to try?”
No one was.
I’d learned one trick from Whitlaw. I used it now.
When in doubt, look in the dictionary.
First, make sure you understand what you’re talking about. Look at the words you’re using. Understand their meaning. Look at the intent behind them. If you can’t find precision, there’s something wrong. We all knew the speech; we knew it by heart: “Fuzzy language guarantees fuzzy thinking. You can’t manipulate concepts without precise particles,” Whitlaw had said. “Without precision, you’re just thrashing around with the rest of the symbol-minded.”
If you don’t know or if you aren’t sure, look in the dictionary. Be sure.
I’d been looking in the dictionary all semester long. It was full of surprises.
I snuck a look now. Whitlaw saw what I was doing, but he didn’t say anything.
1. Accountability. 2. Having a duty or obligation.
Hm. Either the dictionary was wrong—or Whitlaw was. Right now, I’d bet on Whitlaw. There was something else, something underneath, that he was reaching for. He always was.
No. That was too close to burden.
4. Being a source or cause.
I stared at the words for a moment without realizing what I was reading.
Being a source or cause.
Suddenly it all fell into place.
“McCarthy?” Whitlaw asked abruptly. “Was that a light bulb that just went on over your head?”
“A light bulb. Look it up. Invented by a man named Edison. It made light. Also used as an icon to represent having an idea. Was that an idea you just had?”
“Uh, yessir. Source. Being responsible is being the source.”
Whitlaw looked honestly surprised. “You’re close,” he admitted. “You’re almost there. Take one step back. What has to happen first? What has to happen before you can be a source?”
“I knew it was too good to be true,” Whitlaw remarked sideways. The class laughed.
But I knew this one. I didn’t know how I knew, but I knew.
“—first you have to be willing to be the source.”
Whitlaw stopped, turned, and stared at me, astonished. “That’s right.”
The class gave me a standing ovation.
I blushed. This was even more embarrassing than Whitlaw’s abuse. All I’d done was put together two pieces of the puzzle. Whitlaw had been hammering us with this information all semester long. Anybody could have done it.
Fortunately, Whitlaw stopped the applause; he waved the class back down into their seats. “Not so fast. Let’s make sure this didn’t happen by accident.” Whitlaw zeroed in on me again. “A willingness to be the source? Explain that, McCarthy.”
I hesitated, thinking out my words carefully. “Well—if we start from the word source, then being the person responsible for something means that you’re the person who causes it, you make it happen.”
“Okay—but let’s not get lost in the jargon, Jim. You used the word willingness. What’s that?”
“Um—” I had to hold myself back so I could get the words out clearly. “Willingness is what happens when you get past all the resistance, all the reasons, all the bullshit. What’s left is interest. That’s willingness. Out of willingness flows all the rest.” I allowed myself a triumphant grin. “So, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Responsibility is being interested in and enthusiastic about and committed to the results.” I was realizing the profound truth of it even as I was saying it; it was a remarkable sensation. “It means you’re the heart and the soul of the moment.”
Whitlaw nodded slowly. “You’ve been doing your reading, haven’t you?”
“It shows. Good. That’s very good; it’s complete. There’s nothing I can add to it—but I’m going to anyway. I want to put a context around it. It’s not just source we’re talking about here, Jim. We’re talking about ownership. The word source sometimes confuses people; because source isn’t something you do—it’s something you are.
“So, the way we ease people into the concept and the experience of source is to talk about ownership. Not ownership as in property, but ownership as in command—as in, ‘When I teach this class, I own this room.’ There is no part of this room that I am not responsible for. I make sure that the lights work, the board functions, that books and discs are available, and so on. In other words, I am the source for this class.”
The finger pointed and jabbed. “You are the source for your life, for everything that happens in it, for the effect you have on the people around you. You can create it for yourself, or you can pass that responsibility on to someone else—say, like the universe at large—and then you can pretend to be satisfied with the results, a life out of control.” He looked at us all. “Are you willing to own your life or not?”
There must have been blank faces, because abruptly Whitlaw stopped. I sense confusion in the room. “Who’s lost? Who doesn’t get it?”
Three of the back-row boys raised their hands.
“Mm-hm. Good. Thank you for being honest. Mmm, let me see if I can clarify this for you in terms you’re most likely to understand.” He folded his arms across his chest and studied the ceiling for a long thoughtful moment. His face went deliberately blank. Some of us had learned to recognize that posture and that expression and were already ducking under our desks. Whitlaw brought his attention back to the three students in the back and suddenly asked, “Do you fantasize when you masturbate?” His tone was as innocent as if he had asked where they were born.
It was the perfect Whitlaw question. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There were embarrassed titters.
“Look,” said Whitlaw. “Let’s not pretend. Ninety-five percent of the human race masturbates, and the other five percent are liars. Masturbation is the only way you can claim to be good at sex without the corroborating testimony of a partner. The question is not whether you masturbate. I’m making the assumption that you are all normal healthy adolescents with the usual normal healthy overdose of hormones—” He looked toward the back. “—and that the three of you in particular are doing your very best to avoid dying from terminal testosterone poisoning. As the man says, self-abuse is the sincerest kind.
“Now, in case you have forgotten—the three of you seem to have sunk into a deeper state of catatonia than usual—I will repeat the question: ‘Do you fantasize when you masturbate?’ “ He turned to face the rest of the room. “I’m not joking here. It’s an important question. That’s the one time in your life when you are performing for an audience of one, and have instantaneous and total feedback on the success and appropriateness of your efforts. There’s only one person in the world you are trying to satisfy. And you always know when you succeed—or fail. You have gratification—or you don’t.”
Whitlaw ignored our snickers and titters. “Believe it or not, that experience, that fantasizing, that act of creation, is one of the truest experiences of being at source. Absolutely nobody else in the world gets a vote on what you think about when you masturbate—and when you create a fantasy for the express purpose of satisfying yourself, you are functioning as a source. That’s who you really are. That’s where you live.
“Unfortunately, for most of you, that’s your only experience of source. So to talk about it this candidly, this casually, is a very painful and embarrassing experience for you.
“The point of this discussion,” Whitlaw said, “is to bring you to a consciousness of the possibility that source can occur elsewhere in your life. In fact, it can occur everywhere in your life. Look around—life is all possibilities. You can invent it any way you want. But let me give you some hints on how easy it is to start. You can own the experience of washing the dishes, if you want. If you play a game where the goal is to see how clean you can get every dish, you can wash dishes at source. Or whitewash the fence. Or conduct a symphony. Or even do your homework.”
“Right. For most of you, your best experience of source will continue to be your right hand. Unless you’re ambidextrous. But, at least now, you’ll never be able to claim that nobody ever told you that there was an alternative to spiritual Onanism.” Whitlaw limped back to the front of the room, clapping me on the shoulder as he passed. “But you were right, James. Underneath all the words that we use to talk about responsibility—even the law firm of blame, shame, burden, and guilt—is the very simple and basic experience of source. And it starts with your willingness to have it happen. Even the consciousness that such a thing is possible is sufficient to trigger the process. That’s why you’re required to take this class. It’s your wake-up call for life.
“When you talk about all that other stuff that you’ve confused the issue with, you’re allowing yourself to forget what’s really underneath. What we ought to ask in every situation is this: Is the person operating at source? Are you home—or are you just going through the motions?
“That’s all there is to life—to relationships, to communication, to producing results; and the real surprise is that it’s not hard or difficult at all. So, thank you, Jim. Thank you for being willing to be uncomfortable.” He turned to the rest of the class. “Now you can applaud.”
They did. Long and loud. There were also whistles, hoots and cheers.
Whitlaw waited patiently until they finished, then he leaned back against the front edge of his desk and spoke quietly to us.
“Don’t get too cocky here,” he warned. “Knowing the definition is not the same as living it. I expect most of you to forget this material ten minutes after you walk out that door. Maybe one or two of you will remember. Maybe it’ll even make a difference in your lives. That’s the hope—that one day, in a moment of crisis, when you most need to know it, one of the time bombs that I’ve shoved down your throats will finally go off.” He looked at us and grinned. It was an honest friendly grin. He didn’t even look like Whitlaw.
“I know I’ve said a lot of cruel things in here about your lack of ability to learn. Yes, I did it deliberately. It’s one of the best ways to keep you awake—insulting you. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy it. I’d also be a liar if I said I didn’t mean it. The fact of the matter is that if you can survive the very worst that I can hand you, and the evidence today is that you can, then you can survive anything else that the universe will throw at you. It was always my intention to be the meanest son-of-a-bitch you ever met in your life—so that all the other sons-of-bitches waiting for you out there will never be able to lay a finger on you. I never pulled a punch in here, and now you know you can handle it.”
He reached across his desk and grabbed a tissue from the box; he blew his nose loudly, wiped a couple of times, and then continued. “I said on the first day of this class that they don’t pay me enough to do this. That’s true. But, if you’ll remember, I also said that I would teach this class even if they didn’t pay me. One of you asked why and I told you that if you could make it through to the end of the semester, you wouldn’t need to ask that question. The answer should be obvious to you now. If it isn’t, then I didn’t get the job done. Does anybody still need the explanation?”
He looked out over the room. I thought about it. Was there any doubt in my mind why Whitlaw was teaching this class? No, no doubt at all. I looked around. Nobody else had raised his or her hand either.
“The truth is that teaching high school students is like dropping stones down a well and listening for the splash. Only, most of the time you never hear it. I’ve been shoving time bombs down your throats. Someday soon, they’re going to start going off. When these things finally do go splash or klunk or ka-boom or whatever sound they make, I’d appreciate it if you’d take the time to drop me a note and let me know. You all have my E-mail address. Don’t lose it. As a teacher, the only reward or acknowledgment I can ever receive that really means anything is to hear from one of you that something I taught you or caused you to realize has actually made a difference in your life.”
He sighed. For just a moment, he looked tired. “There are no passing or failing grades in here. The universe will give you your grade. You’ll know when you receive it.” He added impishly, “In case you’re wondering, the universe doesn’t grade on the curve; it’s all pass-fail. Here’s how you know if you’re passing: you’re still alive. In the meantime—” Whitlaw grinned wickedly. “—May the source be with you.”
We let him live.
More than that, we gave him a standing ovation—and not surprisingly, a whole bunch of hugs as well.