Wednesday, June 29, 2011
The pursuit of happiness
So many times, as I instruct my children in the finer points of becoming productive members of society, I am struck by an undeniable truth that seems so painfully obvious that I am surprised I have lived this long without realizing it. One such revelation came to me as two of my children and I were embroiled in a discussion on personal responsibility.
Recently, I heard yelling coming from the living room and when I investigated I found one of my children holding their arm complaining that the other one had smacked them. "You did what!?!" I said, barely believing what I heard. Then the excuses started coming. "He thunked me first!" "Well, she made a face at me." "He said I looked good in pink - and you know how much I hate pink!" And on, and on and on it went. Finally, after shushing them both, I turned to the one who had done the smacking. I informed her that she had no business thunking her brother, under any circumstances. Immediately, she tried to convince me that it was really his fault, because he had smacked her first. An untenable situation, right? Nope. Because the reality is, each kid was responsible for their own actions.
As Sir Knight and I strive to raise wholesome, character-filled children, one of the main themes of our discourse is personal responsibility. Each person needs to be responsible for their own actions, regardless of what someone else does. While smacking someone who smacks you is the commonly accepted, standard response, it renders you a victim. Rather than choosing how to respond in any given situation, you relinquish your choice and react based on someone else's actions. In other words, you allow someone else's actions determine what you do.
I was considering the moral implications of personal responsibility and suddenly I realized that personal responsibility is inextricably woven together with the pursuit of happiness. Only through being responsible for our own actions, regardless of external circumstances can we truly achieve happiness. I have watched the dance unfold before my eyes too many times to count. I have seen my children blame each other, getting more defensive, angry and sullen as they continue to excuse their poor behavior. But then, I have seen them, to my great pride, say "Yes, I did that. I behaved inexcusably and I am sorry. I shouldn't have done that". And you know what? They were happy. Gone, was their defensive, angry, sullen attitude. It was replaced by an attitude of humility. Not only did they take responsibility, they gained wisdom by admitting their failures. They learned. They gained character. They earned self-respect. They earned my respect.
Our founding fathers realized that the only way we would be free to pursue happiness was by taking responsibility for ourselves. One of the reasons Patrick Henry was so vehemently opposed to the ratification of the constitution was because he believed it took responsibility from the people and gave it to the government. He was right. He knew that when people were given a large central government, they would have someone to blame for every evil. And when they blamed someone else, they would shirk their own responsibility. And when they shirked their responsibility, they would become victims.
Have you ever noticed that people who blame everyone else for their circumstances are terribly unhappy? They are constantly in trouble and it is never their fault. They are angry and sullen. They never learn. They are always the victim. They never rise above their circumstances. Contrast that with people who screw up, admit they were wrong and take steps to remedy the situation. Contrast that with people who choose to do the right thing when confronted with unfairness or abuse or tragedy. These people are given to the pursuit of happiness. These are the people that change the world. These are the people that build strong families. These are the families that build strong nations.
As I corrected my children, teaching them never to blame someone else for their behavior, I realized that in my own small way, I had the opportunity to change the world. I could start, with the five souls entrusted to Sir Knight and I, to teach them personal responsibility. I could show them, that by being responsible for themselves, they would be placed firmly on the road to happiness. I could teach them that by taking responsibility for their actions, they would not only be helping themselves, but they would, in fact, be contributing to the "common good".
And so, if you want to find happiness in this lifetime, don't let anyone else choose how you behave. Take responsibility for yourself. Learn from your mistakes. Embrace life's bumps and bruises and do the right thing - no matter what! There is a price to be paid for the pursuit of happiness. That price is personal responsibility.