A LARGE part of my personal-growth-process has long been to 1) Take responsibility for my own actions and inactions, and the complimentary part of that is to 2) Identify those things that are out of my control.
In my youth, “taking responsibility” was often a tough one because it was personally difficult for me to step outside my own ego to clearly identify how I could have done something differently. The justification “I tried my best” would often drown out rational examination. However, after years of conscious and consistent practice, I’ve gotten better at it. It’s not fun owning mistakes “AFTER” you’ve made them, especially when you know that, at the time, I probably did do the best I could with what I knew at that time. But the repeat exercise of reflection is (I feel) essential to continued growth. I can’t fix the past, but I still own the responsibility of doing my best to keep from repeating my mistakes.
Then there’s the issue of control. What can I control?
The truth is… not as much as I would like.
I’ve successfully addressed much by simply slowing down. I consciously take a beat now before I respond to someone during a deep or important conversation. The first thought that rises is not always the best one or correct one, and that extra second (or so) allows me to apply an often-needed filter. It also allows me time to finish a train of thought — a necessary task for someone like me who’s still very fond of talking as I’m reasoning or problem-solving.
But what about those things out of my control? Those things that I cannot influence no matter what I say or do?
For years, those circumstances plagued me. People I truly care about (an intentionally shorter list these days, for many reasons) may do or say something based on their “perception” of my thoughts or feelings. Is it my fault when they get it wrong?
The short answer is = Yes and No.
If I thoroughly examine the actions or words that I employed that gave them the wrong perception and find that I could have been clearer, then yes – it’s my fault. But it still amazes me how often people will form a solid perception based solely on “I thought you were thinking this!”… even though there were no outward indications from me for them to base their perception on. Here’s a common and easy example:
“But I thought you were mad at me!”
When I ask them what I did or said that gave them that perception, too often it was simply a “look” on my face. They thought they saw a scowl, or a frown, or anger or sadness or… You get the point, right? When I asked them why they didn’t simply ask me if I was upset, the response was normally “I don’t know.”
So, in that example, who’s at fault?
In my 20’s and 30’s, I didn’t give a damn about what other people thought. I felt solidly that if I didn’t mean anything wrong, then it’s YOUR fault if you see something that’s not there. This was extremely evident during my arguments with your mom during that time. She was constantly starting fights with me based solely on her perceptions of my facial expressions, Josh’s mood or something Nanay would say or something Donday would do — and she wouldn’t take the extra 10 seconds to clarify with any of us if we actually meant what she perceived.
Then in my 40’s, I did a complete 180 and decided that I need to completely own my external signals. To be honest, I did that more for Josh and Donday then I did for my wife. I didn’t want either of you to feel or perceive something that I didn’t intentionally put “out there”. And the absolutely BEST part of that was — you both were excellent at calling me on my “stuff”. If you thought you saw or heard something from me that you didn’t like, you told me. That’s how discussions and clarification happen.
But over the last 5 or 6 years, I’ve slowly turned back toward releasing my sense of responsibility regarding those things. And – whether for good or bad – I’ve incrementally said “Good-bye” to a number of people from my life simply because they felt they had no responsibility to talk with me before they got mad at me. They felt that perceptions were fact, and I no longer feel that way. They weren’t willing to open their minds and I’m no longer willing to deal with their prejudice. So, we parted ways, whether they liked it or not.
Is this right? Is this fair? I don’t know.
I currently have a son who blames me and holds a very large grudge against me for things that I was completely oblivious to: He says I wasn’t there during an extended difficult time in his life. He says he reached out to me, but I don’t recall that at all. He recently expressed his anger toward me and was completely unwilling to talk about it. He has his perceptions about it and he’s unwilling to discuss it.
Up until that time, I thought I had been a good father to him. He forcefully and angrily told me that I had not.
Part of me wants to take complete responsibility for it, to beat myself up for it, and to be awash with guilt and remorse.
Part of me wants to say “Screw it! If you don’t want to talk with me about it, then it’s not important to you – so it’s not important to me either!”
I’ve recently become very enamored with Stoicism and the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and other Stoics because of their belief that the past is the past and out of our control. I am also deeply inspired by their daily conscious effort to be mindful and present in the now instead of worrying about what-could-be.
The Stoic approach to what I’ve discussed in this letter would be:
— You can’t control the perceptions of others. They either own it or they do not, but it’s not your burden to carry.
— You are responsible for your side of a conversation, but you cannot force someone to converse.
The Stoics also feel that all negative emotions related to these types of situations are completely counter-productive because, again, they are out of your control. The only valuable thing to them is “Action”… when action is possible.
I love you kids — both of you – SO much. You have been THE MOST important beings in my life. I pray daily that I am a good dad to you. I guess that’s up to you to decide if I’m successful.
All I can do is to continue trying. That’s the only thing in my control.