Responsibility

I often feel the tension between doing our best and making sure we succeed.  Perhaps my favorite line in any Christmas Carol is the line from the Little Drummer Boy “I played my best for him Pa rum pum pum”  And for a little drummer boy honoring his king, that is a worthy gift and the highest he is called to.  On the other hand, as Sean Connery says in the move “The Rock”, “Your Best? Losers always cry about doing their best.”  The sentiment that whether it took only a little of our strength, or more than we thought possible, the outcomes seems to be the most important consideration.  This must at least be true if we follow my usual understanding of love: to have as your end (telos) the good of the loved.  Consolation in this difficulty is that most of the failures of our best, at least mine, can be traced to not praying earnestly, working smart enough, or being prepared enough.

Recently, I was reading an article on the site “The Art of Manliness” which claimed that taking responsibility was the essence of true manliness.  This conception is attractive and seems to explain many of the traits we would usually say are manly but can easily become false idols.  Thus strength is manly because it allows successful response taking.  We see this in manly roles as well.  That being a father makes one manly because one is committed and responsible for a child.  That being a doctor makes us responsible for patient lives.  That being a soldier is taking responsibility for their brothers and country.

As attractive as that conception sounds, I’ve historically had the “do my best” attitude.  While it is psychologically comforting, it is probably immature.  This trend was evident in many aspects of my life but is especially apparent in my attitude on the soccer field.  Win or lose, I was happy if I played reasonably well and worked hard.  This, in turn, encouraged a running focus over a smart play positioning focus which is better for the team.

The responsibility ethos is especially important and apparent in good team captains.  One of the most clear times in my playing career occurred at a college club game.  Regulation time ended in a tie and the other team asked if we would like to do a tie breaker.  I just wanted to play and have fun and was for continuing.  Our captain, on the other hand, was disgusted at our level of play and heart and would only accept the challenge of a tie breaker if the team truly invested in it.  His emotional attachment to the good of the team inspired a significantly more spirited performance in extra time, though (evidencing my usual attitude) I don’t even remember whether we won.

At a level I’ve never done before, I’m taking responsibility for a number of projects, from keeping records and standards for our construction to hospital industrial capacity increases.  I even got pretty annoyed when someone, with some reason for not delivering, took over the communication and delivery of the next phase.  I felt and feel responsible to “my” engineers on my team who he was keeping in the dark.

Further, as I wrote above, we have been working on the stairs of our new building, a rather complicated task (for manual labor) of ensuring the steps are to spec in size and strength.  I took the position as we were working that I would give the final OK to pour concrete.  Either I would confirm that we were within spec or would get the OK from someone who could say we were allowed to be off spec.  But one way or another, I would give the OK and take responsibility for it if it did not satisfy the needs and standards of the hospital.

What does it mean to take responsibility for, though?  My general surgeon mentor told a story of one of the residents years back who made a clear mistake that killed a patient.  They said that they take full responsibility.  He pointed out to her that taking responsibility after the fact doesn’t mean much anything to the patient you have let down or anything else.  It is better than denying responsibility but it means that you failed your responsibility.  For my stairs, I like to think that I would take the heat for issue if/when it comes up in a meeting.  Though heroic, cool and dramatic, it is not clear that I’d have the resources to make right what I took responsibility for.  If responsibility means to ensure a good outcome, neither of us could properly claim responsibility as neither I, nor that young doctor, would have any capability to remedy the situation we had created.  That is why we have the contractor company generally set to take responsibility: because they can remedy a failure.

Where does that leave me?  To quote my friend Peter, “The attainment of a virtue is dependent upon its practice.  Virtue begins in hypocrisy.”  We try to live into something we cannot yet fully handle.  I “take” responsibility though I can’t guarantee success.  And that is the best I can do right now.

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