Freedom and Responsibility

America’s birthday this month marks many decades of growth and progress, and yet we have a long way to go towards fulfilling our potential.

Viktor Frankl once suggested that in addition to the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast, America should erect a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. Perhaps by this he meant we cannot ever know true freedom until we are willing to accept full responsibility for our actions and our choices.

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Photo Credit: Thunderstorm in NY by Marco Fedele

In these times of conflict where examples of negative behavior seem to exist everywhere, ultimately the only person we can change is ourselves. Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words were to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

In a recent TRP workshop, this idea was illustrated for us by a participant. She shared her O-FLAG (Opportunity For Learning And Growth) story with us:

She had young children and came in early to get work done so she could leave early and spend time with them. However, her manager would typically come by her desk late in the afternoon and “check-in.” The conversations with her manager always seemed to stall her plans and nearly every time she’d be “stuck!” She was growing frustrated. She wanted her manager to change the routine… she wanted her workplace to change the rules for her… She wanted everyone else to change so she could get what she wanted!

Instead, she changed herself.

She slowed down and allowed the mornings to become quality time with her children. Instead of coming early, she would come to work on time, get her work done, and leave on time. When she came home, she was fully present and she didn’t feel guilty about it. She was more focused at home, and more productive at work. It was the personal adjustments she made – it was the freedom to choose how she felt and what she could do about it that made all the difference.

Exercising our power of choice is not insignificant during these times of tension and challenge. Let’s be the change that we wish to see in the world.

Road Trip! And Bonus O-FLAG

We had traveled 450 miles with our three young kids in the back of the mini-van. When we pulled into the campsite a little after 5:00 pm I was worn out. The rustic cabin we were renting for the next several nights was as advertised. The kids ran around, eagerly exploring every corner of the tiny cabin. My wife tried to figure out how to eat dinner, realizing that we had not brought utensils, nor plates, and they were not furnished in the cabin. “I should have checked on that,” I said, a little frustrated that I’d forgotten about that important detail. I began to get irritated with the noise of the children, and barked out, “Keep it down guys!” The idea of getting back into the van and driving ten miles into town for dinner or a grocery store run was not appealing to anyone. Then I heard a loud thump and I realized the kids had discovered the bunk-bed and were jumping off of it. My irritation rose. I felt myself getting ready to snap. I knew that I was about to yell at the kids and make them miserable. I was miserable, and they might as well be miserable too!Playground

Right then and there, I stopped.

I told my wife I’d be back. In the tiny cabin bathroom, I washed my face at the sink. I realized the kids were tired too; they had been in the car just as long as I had. I came back out, determined to put a different ending on this story.

She and I huddled and decided to take the kids to the playground, less than a five-minute walk in this idyllic campground. We decided to let the kids run and then just eat the travel snacks that were left from the day’s drive. I was astonished that the feelings of exhaustion I had experienced so keenly only minutes ago, seemed to just disappear.

We laugh about it now, and also appreciate how simple it was to make a different choice. On reflection, making this choice led to a serious question for me: where else in my life does that sense of irritation sometimes show up? Several thoughts came to mind. In meetings I may ignore the contributions of others when I feel I have been working hard. I tend to shut down or quit when I believe I am tired. And when I think I am “at my limit,” sometimes I feel that I am entitled to being treated a certain way.

I realize now that my irritation that night had nothing to do with my children, or with the drive or anything else. It had to do with the perspective I was choosing, and a perspective that was changed when I was able to view it for what it was. The O-FLAG (Opportunity For Learning And Growth) was about making a choice to stop a reaction and turn it into a response. But it also provided another opportunity for me – a much deeper learning experience. Our O-FLAG’s teach us about ourselves. They give us the opportunity to look inside and in so doing, we can discover better ways to serve our families, organizations, and our communities.