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Where should the line be drawn between an individual's own responsibility to take care of herself and society's responsibility to ensure that others shield her?"
What do you think these words could be referring to? What evil does the questioner suggest is lurking out there that society needs to come to grips with so you and I will be safe?
Nuclear war? I agree. A society should place the responsibility on its own shoulders to protect us all from nuclear holocaust. How about serial killers? Another good guess. The FBI spends a lot of time and resources taking responsibility for making sure that you are safe from the Hannibal Lecters of the world. What about an outbreak of bird flu, E. coli, or some other deadly disease? Right again. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has your back covered.
So which of these mortal dangers was the opening quote referring to when it asked where society should step in and make sure that you are okay?
The answer: none. Guess what the culprit was that spawned this quote. I will give you a hint. The quote comes from a ruling by a United States Federal judge. Still wondering?
The perpetrator so dangerous that protection from it may require the collective power of our entire society is-
a McDonald's hamburger. Just think. It took a judge in United States Federal Court to figure out the answer to that question. Why? Because two girls were overweight and claimed that McDonald's was responsible for their eating habits. The attorney for the plaintiffs argued that McDonald's food was "physically or psychologically addictive." From that perspective, the poor girls just did not have a chance. The Golden Arches reached out and grabbed them, pulled them in, and force-fed them.
But, common sense-and as we shall argue-the created order, prevailed. Part of the judge's opinion held that "if consumers know (or reasonably should know) the potential ill health effects of eating at McDonald's, they cannot blame McDonald's if they, nonetheless, choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonald's products."
Thank you, Judge, for bringing some sanity to this picture. But it begs a bigger question. How did we get to the place where someone would even think that they could sue a hamburger chain for their weight problem? Was it the permissive sixties that did away with personal responsibility in our culture? Was it humanism that said humanity is basically good and it is our poor environment that causes us to make mistakes? Was it permissive parenting that taught an entire generation to think that nothing is its responsibility-nothing bad that happens is ever my fault? Was it the psychologists who said that to discipline a child might hurt his self-esteem? Or was it all those hamburgers we ate that made us think this way?
Actually, as much as we like to talk about how far society has gone astray (and there is truth to that), blaming others is not a new problem created by twenty-first century America. Though we do seem to have perfected blame as a cultural and legal art form, it is not a modern phenomenon. In fact, it has been part of human nature from the beginning of time.
When God asked Adam the equivalent of "Why did you eat the hamburger?"-in Adam's case the forbidden fruit-Adam quickly blamed his wife: "The man said, 'The woman you put here with me-she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it'" (Genesis 3:12 NIV).
When God asked Eve about the issue, she offloaded responsibility in a similar fashion. "Then the Lord God said to the woman, 'What is this you have done?' The woman said, 'The serpent deceived me, and I ate'" (Genesis 3:13 NIV).
All Adam needed was an attorney and he could have sued God, Eve, and the serpent. Or maybe they could have bonded together and filed the first class-action suit. But the truth is that there is a fundamental problem with human nature, as philosophers, psychologists, and theologians have noted for centuries. The problem is simply this: we fail to take responsibility for our own lives.
We shift the blame, and the responsibility, to others. It is just a part of who we are, and it has been that way from day one. We did not learn it from our environment, although our environment can augment it. Instead, we bring it into the world as a tendency that comes with being human.
Now, certainly we have reasons why we do not take ownership for our own behavior and lives. Adam and Eve did it, in part, because they were ashamed and afraid. Those are big reasons for us as well. No one ever said that we blame for no good reason. Even the girls in the McDonald's lawsuit had struggles and determinants that were making self-control difficult for them. There is no doubt about that. Perhaps they felt ashamed, powerless, or afraid. Anyone who thinks they are going to help an overweight person by just saying, "It is your choice. Stop eating," has either never been overweight or has never worked with many overweight people or addicts. External factors do influence our behavior. Even the Bible affirms that.
But, the fact that there are reasons that drive us to do things, and the question of whether we are responsible for what we do with that are two very different matters. The bottom line is this: No matter what reason drives someone to overeat, whether it's stress, McDonald's advertising, boredom, lack of education, a bad childhood, or whatever, there is still a reality: if you overeat, you will gain weight. The "why" you did it, no matter how valid, will not solve the problem. The same thing happens in people's lives every day. When we succeed in blaming someone for our problems, we still are no closer to a solution for them. Still, we do it anyway to make ourselves feel temporarily better. And when we do, we still have the problems.
If these girls had won their lawsuit, it would have been the worst thing that could have happened to them, for it would have reinforced the belief that someone else was in control of their behavior. Thus, it would have gotten them no closer to solving their weight problem.
It may have helped the girls feel better in some way to have been awarded a big settlement for McDonald's having made them fat. They might have temporarily gotten over some bad feelings about being overweight. I don't know them, so I can't say. But, I can say one thing: they would not have been one step closer to being a normal weight. Not one ounce. Not one fraction. Why? Because they are the only ones who can do anything about the real problem. They are the only ones who can refuse to eat the burgers. They are the only ones in control of that. And in the end, it is all about control. Who ultimately has it? As we shall see, that is ultimately the only thing that matters.
It Is All About Control
I know a man whose childhood was not the greatest. His mother used him for her own needs and his father did not provide the crucial support to give him confidence to accomplish his dreams. In very real ways, he was shortchanged. Now he works at a job that he doesn't like and dates a woman who treats him much like his parents did. She uses him and is not supportive.
Every time he thinks about his hated work or his poor relationship, he reacts in a familiar pattern. He gets bugged and complains. None of his problems are his own fault. He complains about how the company doesn't care about him, and how they use their employees for their own ends. And he complains about how his girlfriend thinks only about herself, and how she always gets her own way. When I asked him about looking for a new job, he said his girlfriend has a lot going on right now, and he spends so much time helping her that there's little left for job hunting. "Plus," he said, "they really aren't hiring in my field right now."
"What about another field?" I asked. "What about your interest in computer science that you told me about?"
"Well, I would have to get another degree," he said.
"Yeah, so why don't you do that?" I asked.
"Well, you know how schools are with mid-career people. They don't like to admit students into those adult programs without experience in the field. The ones with the experience are the ones who get the spots," he said.
Thus the conversation continues in an endless circle. Finally I give up. Poor guy, I think to myself. He's stuck in a prison. But the thing about his prison is that he is the one who holds the key, and yet he doesn't know it. He is the one in control of his life and yet he feels as if everyone else is. He is the only one who can do anything about his problems, and yet he is the one who says he can't do anything. From his perspective, his troubles are not his fault. If only his girlfriend would become less needy and demanding; or if only his company would care and do more for him; or if only colleges would get more understanding-only then would his life ever be different. It is always up to someone else to make it better. And since they don't, it gets no better. Now, if you were to ask him, he would not say this outright. But that is, in effect, what he is saying and living out each day. For, if his girlfriend, his employer, and the college are the reasons that things are not better for him, then his only hope of anything ever getting any better is that they change for him. In his mind, they have all the power and control over his life.
The overweight girls had the same attitude. "If McDonald's made me this way, then my only hope is for McDonald's to do something to make me different." Guess what. Neither McDonald's, my friend's girlfriend, his company, or the colleges are holding meetings right now on how they plan to make these people's lives different. The people themselves are the only ones who can do that.
I have another friend from a similar background. Very little support, encouragement, or help from her family. They hurt her in two ways: first, by the various harmful things that they inflicted on her. And second, by depriving her of the good things she needed. But her reaction was quite different from that of the first friend I mentioned.
Somewhere along the line she learned the difference between what happens to us and what we do with it. She learned that it's not the bad things that happen to us that determines our destiny; it's how we respond to them. She learned that no one can have control over your life if you do not let them. In short, she learned that she "owns" her life, not someone else. And it is the owner who has the rights.
She learned that if her family did not provide the support and validation she needed, she was free to find it from other people. And she did. She joined a spiritual community that loved her and supported her. From that base, she grew to be emotionally strong. Although her parents inflicted lots of emotional pain on her, she learned that she was free to find help in dealing with that pain, to learn new patterns of relating, and to get well. So she diligently went to sustained therapy, joined support groups, and overcame the significant pain in her life. Today she is very healthy.
Although this woman's parents did not support her intellectual pursuits in any form, including financially, she learned that she could make her own choices and take responsibility for those interests herself. So she got jobs, paid for school, and eventually achieved a graduate degree and became a professional in a high-paying field.
This woman also learned that no matter how hurtful one's relationships may be in early life, in your adult life you can choose relationships with people who will not be hurtful. She chose to marry a good, honest, and responsible man.
Even though God did not instantly deliver this woman from suffering the very moment she prayed, either in childhood or beyond, she learned that she did not have to choose to believe that he is not there or does not care just because healing is not instantaneous. Instead, she chose to believe what he says about our living in a world where people have freedom and choices, and sometimes they use that freedom to hurt us. She understood that he is not to blame for that. As a result, she kept alive a faith that led her to many experiences of his intervention, healing, and deliverance. She did not become bitter toward God or, like the Israelites facing the difficulties of the desert, give up her faith and abandon God. Instead, she became one of those who followed him through the desert to the Promised Land.
And, in what I think is her greatest achievement, this woman learned that although your own parents might not give you what you need in life, you do not have to continue that pattern and pass it to another generation. Instead, she gave her children great parenting, and they grew up to be healthy, responsible people.
Her life did not belong to her circumstances, her parents, her lack of resources, or her lack of options. Her life belonged to her. It was a gift from God. And she was not going to allow what had happened to her be in charge of the rest of her life. Just because how she was treated was someone else's fault, which it was, she did not wait for someone else to make it better. She owned her life. Even if she didn't cause the problems, she was proactive about solving them. She was in charge of what went on from that point forward. That was the difference between my two friends. One was a perpetual victim, and the other was a victorious person.
What Is a Person?
In the beginning, the Bible tells us, God created people "in his image" (Genesis 1:27). This means a lot of things, but one thing stands out as it relates to our present subject: the ability to choose what one wants to be. This ability to choose is what is referred to as "will." Literally, the term "will" means "desire." But for humans created in God's image, it means much more than that. The animals have desire, or appetite. But only humans have the ability not merely to desire things, but also the creative will to take responsibility for that desire and bring about the achievement of it. That creative ability resides in the nature of God, and he has passed it on to us. Your dog is pretty much going to live where you decide he will live. But you, being human rather than canine, have a creative choice. God has delegated two things to you:
The ability to create and respond to life
The reality consequences of those choices
Often you cannot choose what happens to you. You cannot determine which cards you are dealt. But you can always do something:
You can always create, seek, and find a range of options to determine how you will respond to what happens, and how you will play the cards in your hand.
Adam did not choose how many trees were given to him in the garden. But, he did choose which to eat from. The girls in the lawsuit did not choose for McDonald's to make and advertise food that could make them gain weight. But, they did choose how they would respond to that advertising. My first friend did not choose parents who taught him what non-supportive relationships were like. But he did choose to find a girlfriend who was like them. Furthermore, he chose to allow her non-support and self-centeredness to control his life. He also chose to stay in the state that his family left him in rather than make an attempt to grow out of it. It was easier to blame than to change. As a result, he was choosing his life, one sentence of blame at a time.
We do not always like the enormous freedom to choose that we actually possess. It frightens us. It makes us responsible. But it is a reality. That freedom to choose is the element that explains the difference between my two friends. Both were from difficult backgrounds and faced difficult obstacles. But the way each chose to respond to those circumstances was very different. And their different choices created very different outcomes.
Excerpted from IT'S NOT MY FAULT by HENRY CLOUD JOHN TOWNSEND Copyright © 2007 by Dr. Henry Cloud Dr. John Townsend. Excerpted by permission.
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