Flip Wilson was a famous comedian and television actor who once used the line, “The Devil made me do it.” At the time it was funny, though pretty soon completely overused. In hindsight, the quote can be a pretty accurate description of the misguidance of our youth, as well as many adults. Could this be another means of blaming the yetzer ha’ra for our misdeeds? Can we really get away with anything if it’s not our fault or was an accident? What about the concept of “responsibility,” how do we teach that to our children?
Before reading further, seriously try to answer these few questions:
- Why do car makers make cars that have 200 miles per hour on the odometer and can go in excess of 150 miles per hour when the speed limit is usually not more than 65 mph?
- Why do car makers brand their cars with speed and pretty young women?
- Why do little boys want to be firefighters or policemen?
- Why do males have more accidents as a result of carelessness and risk taking?
- The list can go on, but there is a pattern! Have you devised your own theory?
If, G-d forbid, someone injures another person by accident, is he or she responsible? If in anger, I say something very hurtful to someone and then apologize for what I said, am I responsible for the hurtful words – even if I am really sorry for what I said?
Where does asking forgiveness fit into rectifying a wrongful act? We know that in Judaism we can ask Hashem, as well as our fellow man, for forgiveness. Teshuvah is acknowledging our wrongdoing, asking for forgiveness truly from the heart, and then never repeating the transgression again.
Is forgiveness the same for everyone? That is, does my role in society, my authority or status, have any bearing on my asking for, and receiving, forgiveness? What about the age of the person committing the transgression and his/her relation to those he/she is asking forgiveness from?
A couple of years ago, a 16-year-old client in one of my anger management courses brought up this question of “asking forgiveness” to the group. In addition to other issues he was struggling with, a very good friend of his had recently been murdered by an ex-boyfriend. To make matters worse, the ex-boyfriend had told my client what he was going to do and my client did nothing about it. As is often the case, someone may say, “I’m going to kill her” and we never think they really mean to do what they say.
In our group discussion, we were talking about “forgiving” and who could, and who could not, forgive and under what conditions. The conversation turned to what really is meant by forgiveness. Over the year or so since this discussion, I have asked that question many times – What is meant by forgiving someone. I have heard many definitions of what it means to forgive, but never one that most people can accept wholeheartedly.
Each day we must make decision, yet it seems we never received sufficient training in making good choices and accepting responsibility for the choices we make. Each of us knows that it is easier to blame others for our poor choices. Heaven forbid we take a look in the mirror and acknowledge the role we played. Sometimes, we find ourselves in situations and we wonder how we got there, thinking it was not what we wanted to happen. Nevertheless, are we not still responsible for our choices, good or bad? On the other hand, in lieu of accepting responsibility some people will take on a victim stance. They allow the event(s) to control their emotions and actions and thus fail to ever accept ownership and responsibility.
Taking responsibility means accepting our emotions in any given situation. Angel S., a victim of childhood abuse who became a volunteer who works with abuse victims says, “If we project hatred, hatred is what we get in return. If we feel deceived, we will be deceived. If we feel hurt, we will continue to hurt ourselves. It’s a never-ending circle of emotional projection that can only be changed when we accept full responsibility for the part we played. Denial comes when our childish side moves to the front. The wounded, inner child part of us is always the victim. It has no control over emotional reaction and this is something only time and experience can bring. Wisdom comes from learning to accept the roles we place ourselves in and how those roles shape our very being.”
Let me go back to my earlier simple questions. What all of these questions have in common is temptation. The world is full of temptations and on a consistent basis our ability to deal with them is tested. Addiction counsellors will tell you that this is the foundation of their profession. Whether it’s through drugs, alcohol, sex, the Internet or any other addiction, temptations can take over a person’s sense of self. How we handle temptations is what makes the difference between an individual who is a reliable and responsible person or one who is unable to deal with his emotions and sense of self. Self-control issues and means of improving one’s personal control will be left to another article. Meanwhile, how do we handle our own choices and temptations? How do we deal with situations whereby others, those who are dear to us, those in authority, or those who mentor us, give free reign to their temptations and “cross the line”?
Community leaders must recognize that once society puts them on a pedestal, once they are in a position of trust where others turn to them for consultation, halachic decisions or guidance, they by de facto are in a position whereby their “line” is higher and different than others. Not only are they judged differently, but also their level of responsibility is on a higher plain. Their temptations are like ours, but their responsiveness to the temptations must be held in higher esteem, as is the person. Once that line is crossed, we can no longer maintain the same level of trust and respect, especially if the person takes on the role of the victim rather than one of true responsibility. Adults need to know and accept this role in the lives of children and followers.
I have a saying hanging in my office, “Worry less that your children are not listening to you but more that they are watching you.” We as leaders, parents and teachers must take this saying to heart. Our children learn more from watching us than we realize. Leaders cannot continue saying, “Do what I say and not as I do.” We must be consistent and say and do what we want our others to learn from us. Without this form of teaching, we lose respect and our children, or followers, gain little from us