What We Do Matters


The Chedva Beat: How do responsibility and accountability interplay?

Batya: Responsibility is the human condition of doing what we are obligated to do. Where does the demand or obligation come from?

We have religious obligations, moral obligations, things that other people expect of us and things that we expect of ourselves. It is the nature of relationships that commitment to a relationship carries obligations.

This does not yet answer the question of what causes me to be obligated to begin with. Someone expects me to do something. So what? So I made a commitment. What’s wrong with backing out of it?

Maimonides makes it very clear that we are responsible because we have free will. Since we have the ability to act autonomously and no one is forcing us to do one thing or another, we are responsible for the choices that we make.

Furthermore, when we make those choices we have the ability to know what is good and will have a good consequence and what is bad and will have a bad consequence.  Thus we are responsible for using our intelligence and reason to direct our actions to the good.

Consequences can be both immediate and long-term. There are repercussions on both the physical and spiritual plane, some so far-reaching we’ll never know.

To be accountable means to recognize that there is a consequence to our freely-made choices.

Accountability implies recognition of guilt (or taking credit). According to Viktor Frankl it is my perogative to be guilty because the possibility of guilt follows the possibility of freely choosing one course of action over another as autonomous, intentional, freely-choosing creatures. We therefore have a right, as the creators of our actions, to take credit for our actions, for good or for bad. Since we are equally capable of choosing good or bad, and choosing wrongly is always an option, guilt is always a possibility.

When Frankl visited prisoners on death row at San Quentin prison they felt good to know they were guilty of their crimes. It made them feel human. After all, they reasoned, if they are only victims of poor upbringing, then it is the fault of their parents that they committed these crimes and their parents should be the ones behind bars, not them!

Without guilt, we are just victims of our circumstances and victims of our inner drives. With guilt we are no longer victims. We have a right to stand behind our actions and take accountability. In the absence of choice no value can be attached to my actions and I can neither be held accountable for doing wrong nor applauded for doing right. Accountability indicates my status as a freely-choosing, autonomous and responsible being.

The word responsibility is expressed by Dr. Viktor Frankl as response-ability. Life confronts and addresses me all the time. I live in a world filled with objective meanings and values, and within this world of values I am personally challenged and called upon through the particular situations presented only to me. From this position I must bring all of my awareness to bear and decide how I should be, what I should do or what attitude I should take.

At every moment of life we are called. As G-d said to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “Where are you?” The call is an invitation to step out into one’s fully emerging self. It can be a call to develop one’s talents or give voice to one’s feelings or beliefs, in addition to being a moral call. By hearing and answering the question we emerge as who we were meant to become. I like Shimshon Meir Frankel’s expression: We are “human become-ings.”

Where there is responsibility there is always accountability. The rabbis of the Talmud said that every person must say “The world was created for me.” Rashi viewed this as a statement of responsibility. I am as important as an entire world. Every person in a sense can say the whole world was created for him or her. How can I be so irresponsible as to banish myself from this world that was created just for me, through my own actions?

In one way or another various commentaries understand “The world was created for me” as a challenge that demands a response from us:

● Don’t live just for yourself.
● Be with the community in its suffering.
● Know that what you do matters.
● Know that other people depend on you.
● Fulfill the mission that G-d gave to you alone…

Someone who is keenly aware of his or her responsibility sees his or her ability to choose rightly as an absolute demand to do so. The statement: “I can, therefore I must” expresses the unequivocal attitude of:  If I have been put here in this place and time, created with this purpose in mind and I’ve been given the means to do it, then how can I not do it?

Frankl first conceived of his idea that we are questioned by life when a fellow concentration camp inmate despairingly told Frankl that there was nothing more he could expect from life. Frankl responded that he must inverse the question. The question is not what we expect of life but what life expects of us!

Life questions me and I must answer for my life. As thinking beings, human beings have an inherent ability to answer the call. My freely-choosing, autonomous ability to answer is my response-ability. Taking ownership for my choices is my accountability.

About Batya Yaniger

Batya Yaniger is a Diplomate-level certified logotherapist through the Viktor Frankl Institute and a licensed social worker in Israel with a PsyD in psychology. She maintains a private practice in logotherapy (meaning-centered therapy) and is a co-trainer in the English-language logotherapy training program in Israel. Batya has worked successfully with people who have, for a variety of reasons, lost their sense of direction in life. She listens for values and strengths that put the person in touch with who they are and what is most important to them. Logotherapy's assumption that every life has a purpose and every situation can be made meaningful perfectly dovetails with Jewish principles of optimism and responsibility. Batya has worked with people who struggle with issues of depression, anxiety, fears and indecisiveness, helping them to access their intuitive wisdom. Check out Batya's fluid blog at: meaningtherapy.wordpress.com
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