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???



Rowena said...

This is a huge issue.

Maybe it comes from the capitalism of this society... and when the capitalists discovered that they could MAKE someone want their crap just by a few well chosen, manipulative words and a catchy image. Before that, we bought what we needed. We didn't run around needing name brand labels and shinier cars.

I think the materialism in this country stinks. And this is what it has led to.

Ami said...

There's so much I want to say about this post, but the biggest thing our parents matter so much. I'm grateful that my parents weren't able to give me everything I wanted because I understand what it means to work for and earn almost everything you get. On the other hand, my parents taught me by example that credit allows us to have the things we can't afford right now, RIGHT NOW. We can always pay it off later. Somehow I've managed to get myself out from under all the credit card debt I incurred during my college years. But I'm still paying off my student loans (an investment in my mind, rather than a debt, per se) and I did buy a car that was probably newer than I needed.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that the lessons our parents teach us (with words or actions) are important to who we become. No wonder we live in a society that is credit crazy, look at our parents (the government) -- they do everything on credit and don't seem to care about getting rid of that deficit. Uncle Sam is not a very good example, in my opinion. A little personal responsibility might be useful around Capital Hill.

Shades of Pink said...

I couldn't agree with you more on this issue. You have such a down to earth way of explaining it. People need to read this. I see so many instances were people have this unfounded sense of entitlement and I don't understand where that comes from. What happened to earning your keep? What happened to knowing one's limits and striving for goals? It's refreshing to read your point of view. Great great post.

Shades of Pink said...

I wouldn't blame capitalism entirely; just the way some people comprehend it, perhaps.

Jim Bob Howard said...

As my pastor says (tongue-in-cheek): "It's almost like the Bible's true!"

"Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and work with your hands..." —1 Thess. 4:11

"Train up a child in the way he should go..." —Prov. 22:6

Personal responsibility begins in individuals. That same pastor says, "When reading the Bible and you see someone doing something incredibly stupid, don't ask 'How can they be so stupid?' Instead, ask, 'How am I being more stupid?'"

The same goes for our government, our family, and anyone else we see doing something really stupid. Our government is what it is because "we the people" have chosen to have them rule over us. They are representing us, just as their offices were created to do. They're reflecting our collective "personal" decisions.

Individually, we need to stop being more stupid than those guys. (If you've already stopped being stupid the way they are, great! Start looking for other ways to stop being stupid.)

The movie Fireproof has a line that is pertinent here: "Don't follow your heart. You've got to lead your heart!" That's where the rubber meets the road. That's personal responsibility. And THAT is what this country—and this world—needs.

Let's get some buttons made up that say:

Maybe that will help remind us to take personal responsibility for our thoughts, words, and deeds; and then choose to lead our hearts.

Steph said...

I don't think *capitalism is the problem with this country. I think it's the fact that so many people believe *stuff is going to make them happy. If I have that new car/purse/whatever, I will finally be HAPPY!

Free markets are good. It's too bad we haven't had one in quite some time.

Naomi said...

Hey! Did you notice I widgeted you? I had to work around stupid blogger which refuses to tell me you posted something new.

I'm not even going to comment on this. B/t the bail out and the elections, I've been so agitated that words can't even begin to express. Maybe that's why I've been having trouble sleeping.

I will say this, I am a huge advocate of people taking responsibility for their actions. Probably cause all my dumbass friends refuse to do so and it annoys me.

There were a million and one ways to fix what was happening other than making up taxpayers with limited funds bail out a bunch of bazillionaires. Why couldn't they just refi people at a low rate? Doesn't teach them responsibility, but it would've stopped a boatload of foreclosures.

I tried to talk all my customers out of ARMS "you don't want to be house poor!" No one listened. Those mortgage brokers are like used car salesmen targeting the weak and uninformed. Luring them into mortgages they shouldn't get and convincing them it will be manageable. People who are already bad with money aren't hard to convince. It's one of the reasons I left Weichert. What was going on at my old office was criminal.

Yeowza. For someone that didn't want to say anything, I certainly rambled on lol. Shutting up now.

Lu said...

Wow. This post is really deep. You have given me so much to think about.

Ann said...

Because the problems are so complicated, I've NO IDEA what the answers are...

But I could NOT agree more with the very last line of your post.

Lorie said...

I think the important word in your post is entitled. More and more people are beginning to see things as entitlements.

D'Arcy said...

wow. BIG topic.

I agree. It stinks. It sucks.

And it is affecting all of our young people.

And it has affected me. I'll share this crazy story since my parents don't read your blog. But, when I was in college, away from home, a credit card was mailed to my house. My mom needed gas that day, her and my dad didn't have any money and so she activated and started using it. I didn't know.

I still had a copy of this same credit card in my wallet and I rarely used it.

Fast forward three months and I went to buy school books.

I was rejected.

i didn't understand. I hadn't even used it and I had a 4,000 limit.

I called and found out it was maxed out.

I about had a heart attack.

I thought I had been the victim of identity theft.

I called my mom crying, and all I got from the other end of the line was silence.

That was my first bit of debt. And I still haven't gotten it paid off.

And I have school loans.

And it sucks.

But we have to be responsible. Whether we got ourselves into the mess by our decisions or not. I take my name and my obligations and my credit score seriously.

And yet I like nice things.

I am NOWHERE near as good as you at this.

But I am trying to heal those debt wounds and not accumulate any more.

It's tough work.

And it's a parent's job to teach kids. My parents never taught me and I was pretty horrible at money management in my early 20s.

Now I am better, 100% better, no credit anymore..but I have a whole to dig out of too.

I wish I had known what you know now.

But you can be damn sure I will teach my kids to avoid debt like the plague!!

Sugar said...

Thanks all for your comments. When we boil the headlines down to our own part in it, it's hard to turn your head away, isn't it?

I want to make sure that you all read the part where I said that I made a LOT of mistakes. I had some serious financial issues in my early twenties. I had two young babies and I was on my own. My parents helped me out as long as I was doing my best to stand on my own. The cash versus credit issue was pretty easy to learn during my waitressing days. All my work directly related to what I could or couldn't afford. And when I overspent, not only was I screwed, but so were my kids. I think when you're in "survival mode," the lessons learned are burned in your head. Looking back, I learned a lot of valuable lessons during a time when I thought I'd never make it. But I'm no better than anyone else (ahem... D'Arcy) just because I didn't max out a credit card.

Anonymous said...

I define personal responsibility as "owning it". Own what you say, own what you do. Admit it when confronted, even if it's ugly. Sing it from the hilltops if you love it. If it seems unattainable, earn it.

And don't, never ever, do anything you don't want anyone to know about. Because they always wind up knowing.

Or in this country's case, wind up paying for it.

smiles4u said...

Amen amen amen! Great post! I couldn't agree with you more. I am glad that you learned somethings or two from your growing up years...not everyone does.

LBB said...

Simple case of grasshoppers screwing the ants.

Further angering me, Wall Street really had nothing to do with this mess (not that they aren't responsible for other issues--just not this one) and I am sick of politicians (both sides) trying to place the blame there. I would like them to acknowledge that the problem is due to people buying houses they knew they couldn't afford (grasshoppers) and the [local] banks who gave them the loans in the first place. Therefore, the politicians are to blame because it is all traced back to lack of state regulations. I wish that someone would call them on it the next time they try to blame 'Wall Street Fat Cats".

Okay--enough ranting for now. :-)

Gregg said...

I agree with you 100%, and actually, I DO think it is just that simple.

Lauren said...

I love the way you explain your view on the bailout - I am right there with you! Thanks for sharing.