Friday, October 17, 2008


1. What is your principle on RESPONSIBILITY. And how does that play out in your life? (principle defined as: set of beliefs that guide your actions).

I am responding to these questions overlooking a rolling hill in Kansas. I am back “home” for a couple of weeks of non-rushed family connecting. When I fly from San Francisco to Kansas – I have to do it in two flights. The first if over deserts, salt lakes and majestic mountains on the way to Denver. But the one hour flight from Denver to Kansas City is the flight that always reminds me of my roots. The flight this trip as we flew at 36,000 miles above clear skies reminded me of these questions.

Below me – flat planes of geometrically shaped fields are the homes of my people. It is where both of my farming parents we born, raised and rooted in their own values of what is right and wrong.

Each small section of land – with one lonely farmhouse reminded me of a small german farming family that farmed because that is what they do. They keep their head down, get their work done. They stay out of the way of others. They are seldom loud – save for the one or twice a year they get carried away at the wedding of a child, niece or nephew.

Each time I fly over those circles and square of land, with grains and oil producing plants, I wonder how in the world I ever was born out of those field – and still become the person I am today. Yet, even at 35,000 feet in the air, I can feel the quietness of the land – of the people and of the expectations. My soul knows where it comes from. And while I may go out and travel the world – those very lands and people influenced my principles on responsibility.

When I ask myself what I think some of my “non negotiable principles” on responsibility – the following statements come to mind – in no particular order.

- Say what you are going to do – and then do what you say. That is your honor.
- Be responsible for yourself. We didn’t hear mantra’s about going out and being responsible for others.
- Give when asked. But do so quietly and without fanfare.
- Help other people help themselves. But there are expectations with that help.

This is a very “heads down Russian-German” way of thinking here in Kansas. In a recent conversation with my mother, we both concluded that she – and therefore us, were never taught about philanthropy. Both of my parents were poor enough that they should have been the ones to receive. But they didn’t ask. They took care of themselves – raising what they needed to make ends meet by farming, gardening, butchering and bartering. And so – since my mother was not raised to go out and volunteer – but instead to work and take care of yourselves – we were also not raised to be volunteers for the sake of being responsible for others.

If we did give, I think that we also knew that it was conditional giving. Whether because we were trying to avoid guilt, earn our way to heaven or we expected that someday, we might need that very same help ourselves, we did it knowing we could expect something in return. But we didn’t ask it. Or talk about it.

2. Where does the principle of responsibility come from? Does it come from religious beliefs? As an offshoot from philosophical principles like “the golden rule? Does it rise out of fear? Is it a requirement of being human?

I believe that much of our need or expectation for responsibility comes from two lines of thinking. The first comes as an avoidance to bad things that happen to us if we don’t – as taught by churches. The second comes from our believe in the golden rule – and a sense of wanting to belong to a mankind that does for others – hoping they will receive the same in return if needed.

Personally – I think I can narrow now my sense of responsibilities from several sources.

1. Learning the “action – consequence – reward” sequence of working at my dad’s gas station from age 12.
2. Being held accountable as the oldest brother of 3 – often whether I liked it or not.
3. Avoidance to guilt and fear from the Catholic church – ranging from collection envelopes to being an alter boy to knowing that I had to tell god about all of my bad things – that there were would be a response – and so it might just be easier to avoid those irresponsible things from the beginning.
4. Learning about extra credit in junior high school – and what happens if you excelled in school – and the benefits it would bring. But likewise, also learning how awful it felt when you weren’t responsible.
5. My parents schemes on “action – reward” growing up – ranging from paying us weekly amounts for the completion of chores – and set amounts of money for achieving certain grade levels every quarter growing up (until the amounts they were offering were far below what we earned in actual jobs).
6. Cub scouts and boy scouts – both from the responsibility oriented nature of getting merit badges – but also from the consequence of when the group failed.

Growing up – I was introduced to the solemn tasks of responsibility by several key actions. The church taught it to me by being an alter boy. I learned it by the “action/consequence” action of school work – and what happened when you did extra credit. Somewhere, I owe a 7th grade teacher a great deal of credit for introducing the idea that if you not only did the work you were supposed to do – but you did more – you could actually achieve scores BEYOND perfect.

I also learned responsibility by working at the gas station at age 12. I quickly learned that if I wanted the things in life that I wanted – I had to ask what needed to be done – wake up – work and be responsible. That earned me $5 a day. Of course, on those cold weekend days, when my father woke me at 6:00 am – I didn’t have much choice but to be responsible. The real question came later at 16 when I had a car – and then had to make my own choices. If I got up on my own – and drove to work – I would be responsible. That would lead to money. And I could keep earning.

I also remember in grade school that the Catholic church handed all the kids small boxes of envelopes at the beginning of each calendar year. Each small box contained 52 envelopes, and our teachers began using not so subtle methods of telling us that each week that we had to put at least a quarter in to the envelope and place it in the collection basket. No doubt, they were preparing their future contributors for larger more adult donations one day. And this was the way the catholic church taught young minds the habit of contribution. It wasn’t lost on me that each of those little envelopes had our own personal number stamped on those envelopes. I often wondered if there was a small elderly nun whose job each week was to take those envelopes, open them, take our our quarter, and then go to her ledger and mark a check by our number with our name. If we didn’t make a contribution for the week, I wondered if she would one day walk in to our religion class after mass, call out a number, and in front of everyone, say, “Ricky – we haven’t been receiving your quarter for several weeks. We hope that you have been doing anything that might make you go to hell – or put sins in your record that may have you saying Hail Mary’s for an hour throughout the week.”

But this was more about my German-Russian immigrant history. And from what my father taught us as kids.

I love my father today. I didn’t always use those words around him growing up. I resented his strong sense of work ethic – and the distraction that this supposed responsibility caused on his other non-working role as a father.

But I could never argue with the key thing he brought to my head – in addition to those often forgot items like a roof over my head – was hard work and responsibility. He got up at 6am – went to work at his gas station – and came home in the evening. He seldom complained. He seldom said anything. But we learned from his this key element of life.

3. What is something you learned from being irresponsible

Sometimes, I wish I could be less responsible. I wish I could not think about all of the things I should be doing for myself and others. I sometimes wish I didn’t come up with a hundred ideas a day – and then wonder what my responsibility was for getting them done, since indeed, I had been given the gift of that idea.

I always thought that my work for four years in Up With People was one of the most difficult responsibilities. This life in a fish bowl – around 125 students who watched every move – and would criticize you and eventually disrespect you for one slip up of irresponsibility was a tough gig.

One thing I learned however, was that it was not as much about the act of not being responsible that was important. Rather – it was whether it caused an negative action on the lives of others. If it doesn’t hurt others – or if for example, others don’t even know that you are being irresponsible – does it even matter? Can you block our judeo Christian principles – and say, “what the hell – no one will know!” This lead me to evolve one of my principles around responsibility – or at least amend it to think that “Be responsible. And if you aren’t, it isn’t so bad as long as you don’t get caught.” Of course, if you continue to expand that thought – you slide down a slippery hole that will eventually expose you.”

Perhaps another funny little story that happened to me also influences one of my principles. When I was in 5th grade, my father dropped my brothers and I off at a movie theatre. He could only do it during his late lunch hour – and so we had to wait an hour before the next movie started.

It was just above freezing in temperature outside and so we decided to walk around at the back of the movie theatre. There was a small pond – divided in half by a sloped wall. I was told by my father to watch after the two boys. And of course, they had no intention of being bossed around by their older brother. My middle brother, an avid fisherman even at that age, walked out to the edge of the lake. The youngest brother followed. While the middle brother could easily walk across the cement wall dividing the small pond, the little brother was not as skilled. Despite me warning – demanding that neither should be there – they thought different.

In the flash of a moment, the youngest slipped on the mossy concrete – and like a greased pig through hands, slid down the sloped wall into the freezing water.

Knowing that he didn’t swim, and that he was not going to be able to climb up that very slippery wall – I had no choice but to slide down into the water with him and pull him out.

I remember three things.

I remember the people at the movie theatre yelling at us for being in the water, and for asking why we would do such a thing – and me wanting to smack them for asking such a stupic question.

I remember how frustrated I was by getting yelled at my parents for not stopping my little brother from being by the water in the first place – and then for slipping down inside. They didn’t say, “Thank you Rick for saving his life – you are such a good brother.”

And I lastly remember my lesson of thinking it was far better to be the bully – and be over responsible – despite that people (or brothers) would not like me and would not get to learn their own hard lessons in life.

This has created a person in my that doesn’t run from responsibility. And it has created a person in me who is not afraid to ask questions – hold others accountable – and worry less about what others think – knowing the result is far greater than avoiding it.

4. What is an example in the world today in which you, or someone greater than you needs to take more responsibility?

I am not as altruistically giving as I think I should be. I sometimes wonder if I am too responsible for only myself. And yet – when I think I should do more – I struggle with the question of why – and if that answer is actually altruistic?

Right now – I am in a bit of a “limited responsibility” phase of my life. I am taking a break from being responsible for hundreds – and narrowing down my list a little, to insure I am doing enough for a few rather than a little for many.

I do want to be more responsible for knowing WHY I am voting for Obama this year. When I read recently in Time magazine that only 25% people can actually show how their selection of a candidate is because they can specifically point to that candidate, and their belief, and how they are aligned to their own beliefs. To me – that is a right we have. And I want to be more responsible.

5. Is everyone in the world “responsible” for everyone else in the world?

America can’t save the world. We shouldn’t save the world. I believe we have a “responsibility” to help others help themselves. But too often, we believe no one else in the world can do it like we can – and so we rush in to show people how to do it our way.

We are over extended as a nation. Our government – and our people – have to much debt. We borrow – hoping some miracle will come about to make it all better. And we over use supply side economics to get people to believe that an investment in one will create two. But we have just learned that this investment of one is getting us seventy five percent on the dollar.

I know that fact tell us that with the wealth of the world distributed, no one would have to be hungry, poor or in ill health. But I don’t think that is the responsibility of the world. My earlier principle of helping people to help themselves governs my thinking here. I want to save all oppressed people in the world – but I don’t know how we can. When we attack the oppressors – we pay a price. And we may not help the oppressed.

I have a feeling that as I get older, my thoughts on this rather selfish perspective of democracy will start to evolve to a more independent view of social responsibility and discussion on what is a human privilege or a human right.

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