Friday, October 3, 2008

Personal Responsibility

"No alibi will save you from accepting the responsibility." ~Napoleon Hill

I asked some friends what their definition of personal responsibility was. I thought it was a silly question to ask, like what color is water... what color is the sky... what color is fire. My oversimplified answers to the color questions were easy: water - clear, sky - blue, fire - orange. But then, life isn't always that simple, is it? Just as water can sometimes be murky, so were some of the answers to the question of personal responsibility. Just as the sky can glow orange and flames can blaze blue, the answers to my question sometimes seemed the opposite of the simple responses I had anticipated:

"Owning my decisions and the actions, good or bad, and the outcomes of both. I learn from my mistakes and don't make them again."

"Remaining true to the deepest desire of one's heart."

"Getting yourself where you want to go."

"Recognizing that your actions impact people and things other than yourself and acting accordingly."

It's safe to say that I wanted to hit my TV with a sledge hammer several times this week. I wanted to hear the sound of a million pieces of glass shattering! Anything would have been music compared to all the finger pointing and ass-covering that is the Great American Bailout. The only thing is that I only have this one TV and if I break it, I don't just whip out a credit card and buy a new one. Now, I understand that on a macro level, our country needed for this bailout to happen. I'm going to completely ignore the the pork stinking up the bill (um, racetracks? what??) and just bring it down to a micro level.

Simple Sugar, so to speak...

Six years ago, we couldn't afford to buy in the neighborhood we really wanted to live in, so we stayed in the neighborhood that had been home for years... an old, blah neighborhood. But it was what we could afford... and just barely at that. We weren't able to travel or buy any kind of extras. When we did travel or buy extras, we would get those funny colored utility bills. You know... the kind that come when they're overdue. We weren't any different than a lot of other families just trying to get through life. We were just thankful that we had our house and with what we had.

But not really.

All around us, other families were going to Europe, buying the latest Mac, driving new Beemers. We were taking local road trips, adding memory to our big clunky computers, and driving a used mini-van. So many times, I wanted to pull equity out of our house. I wanted to be able to do all the things that others were doing... and buy all those things that others had... and experience all the things life had to offer... Still, it seemed crazy to bank on the market to continue it's meteoric rise. The Pilot and I were raised around people who had lived through the Great Depression. No matter how much we wanted to, our grandparents voices were stuck in our heads. We might overspend one month and kick ourselves (and each other) the next month, but no way were we going to gamble our house on an over-the-water bungalow in Fiji.

But, boy were we tempted.

If we would have just followed our hearts, we would be in the same predicament that so many of our friends and neighbors eventually found themselves in. A few had to sell their third and fourth cars. Some had to change how they educated their children. But others unfortunately found themselves being asked to vacate as the banks took over their homes. It's sad, and I feel bad for them, but at the end of the day, nobody put a gun to their head and said BUY! BUY! BUY! I feel sorry for them because they believed that things were going to keep going the way they were going. But nobody gave them any guarantees when they signed their second and third refinance deals. They were enticed by the lifestyle that we were taught to desire... to covet. After all, we all deserve to live the American Dream... right?

But do we deserve to follow our dreams if we can't fulfill our personal responsibilities?

Does a student deserve to graduate just because they sat in a chair for twelve years but refused to come prepared for a test with even a pencil? Does an employee deserve a raise or plum parking spot just because they have been around longer than her co-workers and know where they hide the ink cartridges? Do you or I deserve to have our credit cleared just because we won't be able to survive without a $500 handbag? I know I'm oversimplifying this. But really, where did we become a nation that feels entitled to have whatever we want without taking any personal responsibility over our very actions. I wasn't raised that way. I made some really stupid mistakes in my life. Really stupid. But when you screw up really bad, you learn lessons getting yourself back on track. Eventually, you stop blaming others and start sentences with "I did..." My sister, although raised in the same house, had a very different experience than me.

And maybe this is why this whole deal just bothers me deep in my craw.

I try to teach my kids that their actions will bring about consequences, good or bad. Everything that happens during the day is directly related to what they did or did not do just moments before. It hurts me to deprive them of treats when they don't finish their dinner, but that's what you do as a parent. I hate to tell them that they can't go to a dance because they got a D in Math, but that's just how it goes. I'd rather they learn that fire burns by touching a match than by being engulfed in flames. I mentioned once that my parenting style is thinking about what my Mom would have done and then doing the exact opposite. Well, in this case, I'm split. I had a good and bad example to draw from. While she did make me responsible for my actions as I do my children, she didn't practice the same parenting on my sister. Picture two children. One works to pay for her team uniforms. The other has her uniforms paid for. One got a junkie car to borrow for getting to and from school. The other got a brand new car the day after passing her driver's exam. One bought her own school clothes. The other went to the mall with dad's credit card. (I'm not kidding, y'all... that was us...) So fast forward to today. I pay for everything cash. My sister has a bajillion credit cards that I'm pretty sure are maxed out. That's okay. It's just the way we do things.

This country is like two very different siblings when it comes to spending.

Even though I want stuff... and trust me, I'm not above wanting lots and lots of stuff... if I can't pay for it, I don't get it. If I buy something that I can't afford, I really "pay for it" the next month. So if I want something, I save for it or work for it (or sometimes ask The Pilot for it, but I "pay" for that too). Because of the "Tough Love" I got from my parents, I learned Personal Responsibility. I also (eventually) learned that I could still follow my dreams while doing so. Next test subject: Little Sister - My parents figured they'd go a little softer on her. She had some difficulty coming into this world, they made the rest of her life at home not so difficult just to make it fair. When I complained, which was often, Mom would say it was because I could do stuff myself but she needed help. The result of this unfair treatment was to create a rift between us that is barely manageable at weddings and funerals. We don't like each other much these days. My mom and dad, in all their well-meaning albeit dysfunctional parenting, pitted us against each other. And gave us two totally different views on Personal Responsibility.

Is it fair to give people the things they want just because they want it? Is it okay to bail one kid out and make the other pay? Does it make anybody any better for getting to live a dream but not having to be responsible about the reality of that dream? I know I'm oversimplifying the psychology on Main St. And it probably wasn't one $500 handbag that got us where we are. But it was a feeling that we all deserved to be happy even if that meant maxing ourselves out, living a lifestyle that we had no way of paying for. I know that on a macro level, this bailout means that your 401k will not become a 201k and employees will get paid on the fifteenth and commerce will not come to a great big nasty grinding halt. I just think that, kids will eventually learn to stand on their own...

if they are allowed to deal with the consequences of their actions.


Note: My sister was always perfectly capable of doing anything I could. And my parents weren't being corrupt or greedy. They weren't going to profit from any of their parenting. Their intentions were misguided, but pure. Nothing like the blatant lies some politicians told in order to get the kids back at home to like them more than the other party and vote for them... and Lord only knows what all else they got... a racetrack? What???

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