Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Taking Full Responsibility For Your Life

How accepting responsibility for our happiness empowers us to become happy

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When I was originally introduced to the form of Buddhism I now practice, Nichiren Buddhism, one of the things I found most attractive about it was the concept that we're all fully responsible for the entirety of our lives, a notion rooted in the principle of the simultaneity of cause and effect. In essence, this principle states that everything we experience in our lives today appears as an effect of causes we ourselves have made in the past, and that everything we'll see in the future will occur as a result of causes we ourselves are making in the present.

Another way of saying this is that every cause we make (in thought, word, and deed) could be considered to undergo continual conversion into a kind of potential energy that upon the meeting of certain conditions in our environment converts back into a concrete effect (thus linking in a causal way, for example, the lie I told yesterday to the broken leg I suffer today). It's akin-—at least metaphorically—to the way matter can be converted into energy and then back again. For a full discussion of this concept, including the important distinction between the notions of responsibility and blame, I'd point readers to a previous post, An Explanation Of Karma. Intriguing as I've always found this idea, I must confess that the scientist in me still can't envision a way to test its veracity—and continues to demand such observable proof be found in order to believe it. On the other hand, the mystic in me anticipates that the attaining of enlightenment must involve just that—a wholly subjective experience that sheds the definitive light of truth on it. So, though I can't today imagine what that experience might be, I continue to hope to have it.

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Having said all that, in this post I'd like to argue that even if unverifiable, the notion that we're completely responsible for everything in our lives still has value. At the very least, it points us toward a more complete recognition of the immense power we do have to affect the most important outcome of any life event—how happy or unhappy it makes us. I remain less interested in the way the law of cause and effect could be used to manipulate people into certain action (i.e., make a good cause and get a good effect, make a bad cause and suffer a bad effect, a punishment meted out not by a supreme being but by a supreme law) than in how it could empower people to accomplish more than they believe they can.

Certainly believing that you have more control over your life than you actually do will lead nowhere good. Believing we only need to act kindly and morally, for example, to make everything turn out all right will surely cause us only disappointment and bitterness. We must, of course, acknowledge we often have no direct control over what happens to us (i.e., we can't simply decide we're not going to get cancer and expect that decision to protect us from actually getting cancer). I would argue, however, that the degree of control we have over how we respond to what happens to us is far greater than we often realize and that it remains the key to our happiness.

As human beings, we're endowed with an extraordinary degree of self-awareness, self-awareness we're constantly engaging to form value judgments about the events of our lives. Typically, these value judgments sort into two camps: "good" and "bad" ("neutral," of course too, but far less often). The problem is that our minds are so powerfully predisposed to make judgments in general that they make most of them too quickly, based on too little data. What's more, these judgments almost always leave out a key ingredient—our own ability to affect a particular outcome. So when we hear we have cancer, we immediately judge it "bad"—and as most would agree having cancer is bad, we often leave it at that. Except that the ultimate value of our receiving such a diagnosis is elusively difficult to forecast. What if we're able to find a clinical trial that increases the likelihood of our being cured to over ninety percent? Or, to speculate even more wildly, we were to start a foundation to raise money for our particular cancer that becomes so fabulously successful it ends up playing a significant role in our particular cancer's eventual cure? Even if we die from it ourselves, might we at least be given pause to consider whether or not, on balance, this was a good deal? We do, after all, have to die of something eventually. I say this not to sound callous but to point out that we have more power to create value out of adversity than most of us believe, especially than we believe at the moment adversity first confronts us.

What's more, as Viktor Frankl famously said, "When we can't change the outcome, we are challenged to change ourselves." This is more than just a consolation prize for being unable to get what we really want (e.g., our cancer cured). It points to the important fact that how we internalize adversity, whether or not we feel empowered to challenge it or feel completely overwhelmed by it, has more to do with our inner life state (and therefore the beliefs operating in our lives which determine it) than with external events themselves. I'm certainly not arguing that getting cancer isn't awful. I am arguing that the suffering it causes in almost everyone of my patients who's had it is due to the fact that almost no one (with a few notable exceptions) views cancer as a value-creating proposition at the outset (those who come out cured at the other end sometimes do, but mostly not those who ultimately die from it). To do so of course requires a life state of enormous size, one undaunted, enormously self-possessed, and brimming with courage and vitality. Which is exactly what I'm arguing we should all be seeking to acquire.

So what does it really mean to take full responsibility for your life? It means, in my view, to take full responsibility for your happiness. It means recognizing that how things look at the outset doesn't determine how things will end, and that although we can't control everything (or perhaps anything) we want, we all have often enormous ability to influence how much happiness or suffering the events of our lives bring us. Our focus, I'm arguing, should be on strengthening our inner fortitude, on developing a spirit that refuses to be defeated. For that spirit brings with it an enormous amount of power, power that can help us live up to the idea that we are responsible for our lives and everything in them. And if we can live up to that idea, refusing to become immured in blaming anyone or anything else for our misfortune, we'll find ourselves in the best possible position to win over it. And even if we don't—even if we do ultimately go down—at least we'll be able to do so swinging, with a full sense of ownership of our fate. A sense of ownership that even in the face of defeat may yet provide us satisfaction.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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