Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Accountability and Consent

I wrote this back in 2000. It's something that makes me appreciate things more and be thankful for what is, instead of merely what I'd wish WOULD BE.

It's an all too obvious fact, that other people affect every one of us. Our parents, our peers, friends and foes, all have their impact upon us. Some of us certainly seem to take more of a beating from life than others – from domineering Mom’s, to abusive husbands and fathers, and everything in between, we’ve all dealt with some degree of physical or emotional suffering. But just as much as it’s a fact that we’re each, effected by the other people in our lives, it’s also true that no one else MAKE US what we are.

We’re all finite beings – time and gravity eventually grind us all to dust. That’s not an option, it’s a reality, and so is self-accountability. We’re all accountable for our own maturity...our own development. An abusive Dad didn’t MAKE US abusers, nor did a smothering, domineering, control freak Mom MAKE US whiny, dependent victims – WE DID!

That’s right, each of us is accountable, because we’re all responsible for how we interpret the events of our life.

Blaming others for our problems and flaws on others only keeps us from the possibility of improving ourselves. Blaming others allows us to make believe that we’re not responsible for ourselves, but so long as we do that, we wait for someone or something outside ourselves to change or improve us and that’s just not going to happen.

Think about it, whose life is it?


Who’s living it?

I am.


We’re each responsible for our own lives because we’re the only ones living them.

Consider this complaint, “When I was younger, my best friend stole my first love. Now I get very jealous every time another guy gets too close to the woman I’m with...thanks a lot best friend.”


Thank yourSELF - you’re the one who interpreted that event as “you being wronged.” Maybe the problem was that you weren’t communicating well enough with your girlfriend. Perhaps she met someone she cared for more (apparently so and that is her choice and her right). In short, maybe it was your own self centered-ness, not her unfaithfulness, nor your best friend’s treachery that caused the break-up. The real lesson of all this might be that you should’ve worked on improving yourself, so that you didn’t repeat this pattern over and over – that is generally the lesson of all life’s events.

Yes, others can often be unfair/or unkind, but we’re not accountable for others, we can’t control them, we can only change or control ourselves. The best we can hope to do is to be prepared to defend ourselves when possible and examine ourselves when surprised and hurt.


Forgiveness is a gift that we give ourselves. It’s letting go of anger and hurt that for the most part we can do nothing about anyway. If someone hurts us or cheats on us, we can put distance between ourselves and that person, but the hurt remains. Only part of the pain is betrayal, the rest is self-doubt; “Why? What did I do? What didn’t I do? What went wrong?”

Forgiveness allows us to be forgiven. If we don’t forgive those who hurt us, how can we accept forgiveness for the pain we cause others, both deliberate and unintentional?

“Blame another and lose yourself,” is a saying my grandmother used to often repeat and it’s true. When we blame others for our pain and our faults, we surrender our control over ourselves and without self-control, we are truly lost.


An all too common mythos today is, “I’m the victim, here,” which translates into, “I’m the good guy and you’re the bad guy, so you owe me kindness, aid and comfort, while I have the right to “payback” for all the hurt I blame you for.”

Victimology is rooted in juvenile selfishness; “Me = good/right, you = bad/wrong.” It’s special pleading and asking for extra consideration because we perceive life’s been harder on us than it’s been on others. Embracing victimology is embracing selfishness. It’s putting our needs and wants above everyone else’s, based on our perception that life hasn’t been fair to us, a perception which may be extremely flawed.
Besides, who said the world would or even should be fair?

All around us we witness people born with greater and lesser degrees of talent, ability, beauty, brains, motivations and so on. Every day we witness this interplay of inequities and the results are often surprising. Natural ability is no substitute, nor often any match for hard work and focus. In reality, underdogs often do win, but in virtually every case they are people who’ve taken responsibility for themselves and worked ceaselessly in spite of all obstacles.

The most damaging thing about “victim’s status” is that it degrades us by excusing our rejection of our most basic responsibility, for and to ourselves. In that way, it allows us to reject a primary truth - that we own our own lives. Worse still, it seeks aid and assistance from “helpers” and “help” always comes from above, from those looking down at those they assist. The concept of victimhood is a dead end path devoid of opportunity for self-development.


It’s an oddity of our times that so many of us are atheists or at least agnostics based largely on the credo, “What God could allow so much cruelty.”

A 17th century Carmelite Monk named Brother Lawrence wrote a book called “The Practice of the Presence of God,” in which he said, “If you would embrace God, pray for suffering, for all God’s wisdom is shared with us through pain.”

Maybe he had something there.

Why do we suppose that ease and comfort are the goals of life?

Why do we think, “if God exists, He should do something?”

What I find really incongruous is not our abandoning faith (after all science has supplanted religion as the primary belief system of our age), but that we so readily embraced another faith with no more proof of its veracity than there is for the existence of God, the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. The idea that we are all connected and inter-dependant is so widespread as to be nearly universal and yet I’ve never seen any evidence of such a connection.

It’s true that we’re all capable of acts of extraordinary kindness and selflessness, but we’re also capable of all sorts of calumny and deceits. Why do so many people rail against human nature and speculate on “the way things should be?” What possesses us to believe that we “should” be communal, connected and hive-like, rather than individualistic, as we are?

It seems obvious that each of us is here for only a brief time. We didn’t invent human nature and we don’t “own” life itself, merely the life we’re living. Yet we have no trouble playing God. After three or four decades of life, we’re convinced that life should be good and plentiful and that people should be kind and fair and work for some “greater good.” All this despite the fact that our own first hand experiences show us that most of us look out for ourselves first and exhibit little, if any real sense of connectedness.

To me it’s curious that a group of people skeptical enough to eschew any belief in gods, Easter Bunny’s, etc because there exists no proof of their existence, cling to the idea that “we’re all connected and responsible for each other (“I am my brother’s keeper”) when there exists no evidence that this is so. Why is the myth of human connectedness acceptable, when the myth of God is not?

A while back I’d begun writing pieces for an editor of a magazine. The editor was a black conservative. I worked with him for over three years, interviewing people like professor Walter E. Williams and Lestine Fuller and though I am neither black nor strictly conservative (at least in the sense of supporting a government enforced moral code) I enjoyed the years I worked with Mac.

At any rate, as we approached our fourth year together, Mac came into the NYC area and I suggested that since he didn’t like the crowded, hustle of Manhattan, I could put him up in a place my family owned out in Sparta, New Jersey. I told him I could shuttle him back and forth to NYC for his meetings...he also had a presentation to deliver at the Binghampton Campus of SUNY. I had reservations about making this trip but I told him I’d see what I could do.

Most of the week went well, Mac had a few radio interviews on WABC in NY. On the day we had his Binghampton engagement scheduled, I was heading to the FDNY Medical Offices and I was delayed getting back out to Sparta to pick him up and as a result we got up to Binghampton late for his speaking engagement.

Mac was furious that he had been embarrassed at Binghampton and, in his anger, went so far as to suggest that I may have deliberately sabotaged his speaking engagement. For my part, I became even angrier at what I perceived as an absence of any gratitude for the efforts and hospitality I offered. As a result, both a friendship and a fairly productive business arrangement were lost.

Though the loss was regrettable, it was also instructive that good intentions are not enough. We both interpreted the same events in vastly different ways and such varied perceptions are not at all uncommon. And even though I was angered and hurt by Mac’s reaction, I came to accept that he had a right to interpret things his way, just as I had a right to interpret things mine. We both had a “right” to be wrong and so we were, each in our own ways, leaving us little room for common ground.

Still whenever I think about Mac, I recall the better days and I remember the courageous iconoclast I admired more than the disappointing end.


In May of 1990, I was 36 years old and in the span of eleven days I nearly died three times.

On Wednesday, May 30th while on my way from the firehouse I worked at, in the Bronx, to visit my folks on Staten Island, my car was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer, spinning my vehicle out of control. I passed in front of the huge eighteen wheeler’s grill and slammed off the guard rail as the truck scraped by. The car was totaled, but I walked away from the accident without a scratch. I should’ve been thankful, but instead I was shocked and then angry...about the car and about how close I came to dying for no reason at all.

Just six days later, I was at a top floor fire in an apartment on 165th Street and Sherman Avenue in the South Bronx. We were advancing a hose line, when part of the ceiling came down on us and fire from the cockloft lit up the room we were in. The Captain, Billy O and I were pinned on the floor, as others crawled over us toward the door. I looked up into an orange sky and watched a long finger of flame lapping out the apartment’s front door and into the public hallway, maybe 10’ from were we were still pinned by debris. The air around us grew hotter and I couldn’t move. Suddenly, the terrible awareness that I might die right here on this lovely Tuesday afternoon washed over me with an eerily calm resignation.

Once again, we were spared. Engine 71 brought in a second hose line and knocked down the flames over our heads, allowing the Ladder company to move in and free us from the debris that had fallen on us. The relief wore off fairly quickly, but the anger that I could have died, at a fire that came in at a time when I was normally already relieved (by the incoming crew) and on my way home, did not.

The following Saturday, June 9th, I was working again and we found ourselves at a vacant building fire at East Clarke Place and Walton Avenue. Upon our arrival, there was a tremendous amount of fire on the first floor and heavy smoke pushed from the windows on the floors above.

We were pushing a 2½” hose line through one of the rear first floor apartments. We’d just knocked down the flames in the first room and were getting set to move on the next room, when we noticed a few small tongues of flame lapping down into the corner behind us. We turned the hose around and just as the flames began to darken down, a low roar, grew louder and louder, like the rumbling of an oncoming freight train...Lieutenant Richie M yelled, “Back out!” We all scrambled along the hose line through the darkness to the front entrance of the building.

If we hadn’t turned around to extinguish those flames that appeared behind us, we would’ve been in one of the rooms directly inside the collapse zone.

Every one of us made it safely out of the building and survived a “pancake collapse,” where the sixth floor falls in on the fifth and they collapse down to the fourth, the third and so on. For the next hour, while we regrouped outside, four tower ladders used their buckets to dump water on the building from every side.

While we were out in the street, a few teens tossed rocks down from a nearby rooftop. A few of the rocks slammed off our rigs. Guys dove for cover. One of the projectiles ricocheted off the side of our Pumper and hit John S on the side of his helmet, knocking him to the ground.

At that moment a flash of anger swept over me. “I’d like to kill that kid,” I muttered. The Lieutenant called over police who were already on the scene and pointed out the rooftop the rocks came from. The police effected the arrests and except for John S. (taken to Jacobi Hospital's Emergency Room for observation) we went back into the vacant building to retrieve what we could of our damaged hose line.

When we emerged with two lengths of our hose, about fifteen minutes later, we were met by an irate woman (apparently a mother or sister of one of the teen’s). As I was the first out of the building, she ran up shrieking, than she spit in my face.

With every fiber of my being, I wanted to pound her into pulp, but I didn’t.

I’d like to believe it was simply because I was too tired, but it was something else – perhaps the futility of it all. Looking back on it, my rage at that woman was the same rage I felt at almost dying. I felt I deserved better. Like “how dare this happen to me!” But the truth is, I didn’t deserve better – I got what I got. I’m not responsible for that woman or those kids, any more than I can control how or when I’ll die.

You see? I’d accepted so many gifts – youth, physical abilities, camaraderie without appreciation that I’d come to expect a life filled with good things. I had no right to expect that. Life doesn’t owe me anything...God doesn’t owe me anything. I took what life offered, too often without thanks and I got what I got.

Those teens who tossed rocks at us, that woman who spit at me – their lives are their own. I’m not here to make them better people. Even if that were possible, I’ve got enough on my own plate trying to improve myself – the only person I have the power to control anyway.

Over the next few months, I looked hard at myself and realized that I didn’t do this job, in this area, for any love of humanity, but because it gave me pleasure. It delivered thrills and allowed me to think of myself as “exceptional,” even when all evidence indicated that in most ways, I was not exceptional at all.

Of course that realization didn’t come right away. It came in bits and pieces over time.

About a year after the East Clarke Place collapse, Lieutenant Mike F was conducting a drill with us inside a nearby housing project. As we entered an elevator, Mike, an excellent fireman said, “You all know how dangerous this is going in, right? There may come a time when the elevator opens on the wrong floor, maybe the fire floor. I hope you all know how to don your face pieces in complete darkness, because I do. In a fireproof building, the elevator will fill with thick black smoke in seconds and when the doors open, the heat’ll be tremendous – I sure hope you all remember where the enclosed stairway doors are located, because you’re not gonna have time to think or figure it out. What I’m saying is that I’m gonna get out of that situation alive. I just hope all of you can do the same, for your own sakes.”

Sound cruel?

It wasn’t! It was a message of pure truth...the voice of God, if you will. Mike was telling us that he’d worked hard to become an excellent fireman and that it was up to each of us to take the same responsibility for ourselves. In other words, “Ya get what ya get.”

I took Mike’s message to heart – I own my life. I’m responsible for myself and whether you accept it or not, you are too.

So what did I get from all this?

Acceptance and consent - I accept life as it is and consent to it freely, both the good that I’ve taken from it without gratitude and the bad that inevitably must come.

I accept people as they are. Their flaws are their own and mine are my own and even though I’m convinced I can see theirs so much clearer, I know that my own glare just as bright. So, today, if I could tell those kids and that woman anything, I’d tell them that they’re already forgiven. Even if they wouldn’t ask for it, nor accept it...they are forgiven none the less - not that what they did was OK, it's just over - I've moved on and I accept my flaws and my finiteness. I consent to the rest of this life, whether it ends all alone in a hospital bed four decades hence, or on some street corner tomorrow. I consent to death as I’ve consented to life. I only have to look at all the sprawling cemeteries to know how this ends.

I’ve come close to death and I’ve been humbled to my core. What I’m left with is gratitude for all the things I’ve taken for granted...all the gifts I’ve accepted without thanks. I have no desire to “lead” others, nor attempt to improve anyone other than myself. I’ve learned to love life because it is fleeting and so often hard to enjoy. I appreciate the fact that life can only be appreciated for a short time – gravity and time gradually rob us all of our energies and enthusiasms. Our joys, if we live long enough, are restricted by age, one by one.

I’ve learned to say thanks and to consent to myself as the source of my own happiness and not to expect that “I deserve better” – I know that I don’t. Most of all, I consent to my responsibility for myself and accept the consequences of both my actions and inaction.

If asked for advice, I’d have to say, “Who am I to give it?” But if pressed, perhaps the best I could offer might be; “Since we’ve all embraced so many of the good things...the blessings of life, with neither grace nor gratitude, perhaps the least we can strive for, is the class and dignity to accept the hard times and the bad things that ultimately befall us all, without complaint.”


namaste said...

wow, joe. this was absolutely awesome reading! everything you say here resonates strongly with me. i love the plainness of your tone in its simple truth, this is life, take it or leave it. i am thankful that God lead me here to read your post today.

humility releases wisdom. you've got it in spades, my friend. keep on keeping on!

Tapline said...

Joe, I read your blog and admire what you have taken upon yourself,,,,I could not have taken the abuse you got from that juvies mother... I'm afraid I would have said something back,,,,,in a minute,,,,,Great post.....stay well.....

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