Are you taking responsibility for a problem that you can not control?
If so, here is a real story of how I helped a patient deal with a difficult situation that was making him feel powerless:
I once had a patient come in to see me because he was burdened by concerns he could not save the company he worked for from potential disaster. As a member of the executive committee of that company he was trying to prevent the defection of other executives in that company following the resignation of a key executive who brought much business to them, the impending resignation of another key executive, and a managing partner out of touch with the concerns of the other members of the firm who was not heeding my patient’s efforts to enlist his help to boost the morale of its members. This all on the heels of a decline in sales for the company in recent years.
Taking it too personally
My patient was also haunted by his experience with a previous company he had worked for that closed its business after a similar decline and memories of what he believed was an insufficient effort on his part as executive committee member to save it. My patient’s concern was not for himself as he was financially comfortable and confident that if his current company failed as did the first he would be able to find employment elsewhere with little difficulty. His concern rather was that he would feel responsible for the loss of jobs of those who also worked for and with him. My patient was a very responsible man who cared deeply about his family and his concerns for his company and its employees in my opinion reflected this same quality in his character.
A parable of powerlessness
In responding to my patient’s distress about this matter I was reminded of the story of Pontius Pilate in the New Testament of the Bible who was assigned the role to adjudicate Jesus’s trial that led to his execution. This story has been interpreted in different ways that often vilify the Jewish people and by the same token blame Pilate of cowardly abrogating his responsibilities in this matter. But my patient’s story suggested to me a different take on Pilate’s plight: What if he were a pragmatist who was acting in deference to what he believed to be the unimpeachable power of the Roman magistrate whose primary interest was to preserve social order? Or, as a compassionate person who realized his decision had no power to leverage a final outcome in favor of his sentiments.
The limits of responsibility
I shared this story with my patient to illustrate the dilemma in which he found himself so that he would realize the limits of his power to influence the fate of his company and thus be able to feel less responsible for matters about which he had little or no control. This interpretation of the story of Pontius Pilate resonates with an existential dilemma that has to do with how we deal with situations in life with which we are assigned or choose to assume responsibility yet about which we have little or no control.
When confronted with a problem in life it is a virtue to assume as my patient did responsibility to do what we can. But it is wisdom that allows one to accept the limits to what we can do. The simplicity of this advice belies, however, how difficult it is to put into action. For my patient and perhaps Pontius Pilate as well the process can be an anguishing one to wrestle with one’s conscience on the one hand while at the same time deliberating the limits of what is possible on the other. Accepting responsibility is a sign of emotional maturity, a willingness to go beyond self-interest for the sake of others without expectation for recompense or self-aggrandizement. And it is wisdom to know how far such responsibility can serve the greater good beyond which the fruits of futility can yield no more than despair and self-blame.
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Posted by Robert Hamm, Ph.D.
Robert Hamm Ph.D