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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

The Survival Pledge 5: Mea Culpa

(The Survival Pledge is an eight-point plan to refocus each of us on taking responsibility for our own thoughts and behaviors in ways that benefit ourselves and others, supporting peace and non-violence.)

I will take full responsibility for any actions I take that threaten to shorten my existence or lead to my unhappiness.

The first publications associating cigarette smoking with cancer appeared around 1950, almost simultaneously, in the US, UK and Germany (see my blog post 1/1/2021: “Shoulders of Giants: Looking Forward or Backward?”).[1] In the US in 1966, warnings were placed directly on cigarette packages that were updated in 1984.[2] People sued tobacco companies even four and five decades later, however, claiming that they were not aware of the dangers involved in smoking, or that if they were, they could not help themselves due to the addictive nature of these nicotine products (that manufacturers were aware of).[3]

Though corporations and professionals now focus on Risk Management, our population has entered an extreme era of Risk Avoidance. In the US, especially, high profile and successful tort litigation has fueled a perception that risk can and must always be successfully avoided.[4] When it is not, there is the perception that someone is to blame for this failure. The success of a subsequent lawsuit reinforces the belief that someone should have been blamed. In other words, holding someone responsible reinforces the idea that we should hold some responsible. Even though only 2% of injured US citizens file a tort lawsuit[5] (claiming personal injury), news coverage of significant damage awards triggers the human availability heuristic,[6] generalizing recent facts as though they are common.

Obviously, there are risks inherent in living on our planet that humans cannot control. Always searching for a human or human institution to blame denies this fact of existence. Even when risks can be mitigated, seldom do we blame ourselves. Lawsuits are directed at others, even those who are remotely involved, such as when vicarious liability is alleged or one defendant has more money or better insurance than another.

We sustain a denial of powerlessness and personal responsibility when we blame every injury or disappointment on others, seeking redress from anyone who can compensate us, emotionally or economically. Even some who recognize this distortion may tolerate it because they believe (or, at least, hope) it will reduce human error by motivating better risk management: people and their institutions will be forced, out of economic fear, to reduce risk to others. Data, however, are not supporting this assumption.[7] Unpredictably large punitive damage awards have been found to discourage product improvements, novel technologies and new product introductions. These also lead to fewer risk analyses being performed, as jurors have shown they will interpret such assessments as proof of intentional endangerment by a corporation to satisfy profit.

Adversarial court systems appear to promote the belief that someone must be right and someone must be wrong. The results of litigation (or threatened litigation) are winners and losers. Such a neat dichotomy seems efficient for a society, as long as it can ignore the reality that the stark poles of “good and bad,” “yes and no” and “right and wrong” are not always applicable. Again, these concepts are based on a society’s values (as discussed in my blog post 7/30/2021: “The Survival Pledge 2, Part 2: Meaning and Values”). Currently, our society values the absence of risk and punishes those who fail to maintain the façade.

Of course, there are examples where people, corporations, organizations or governments have tried to avoid the consequences of true irresponsibility that resulted in harm to innocents. Courts, ranging from our local traffic courts to the Word Court in The Hague, attempt to meet out punishment for these crimes. Though expensive, time consuming and cumbersome, our court systems ultimately work quite well for this. Our problem is that the gain can be set too high; juries lack guidance, and, therefore, discrimination,[7] with negative consequences for society.

What is the role, then, of the entity that harms itself? In this age, there are financial, psychological and societal rewards to attempt to lay blame elsewhere. These rewards compete with the benefits of true self disclosure, which include peace. If the recipient of the projected or displaced guilt resists, then conflict is created. The conflict may escalate into war, in a court room or battlefield. When responsibility is avoided, personal power and opportunity are avoided. Only by dealing with accuracy and the truth can problems be solved, and risk truly minimized. This is the truth we discover within ourselves, not that decided by a jury or judge in an adversarial courtroom.

In 1996, Nelson Mandela mandated his country of South Africa utilize a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in an attempt to identify and acknowledge perpetrators of murder, violence and abuse during the apartheid era his presidency succeeded. Such commissions had been utilized in other countries as an alternative to the retribution of the Nuremberg Trials following World War II. South Africa’s very public and televised process, however, though not perfect or satisfying to all, set a new standard for the scope and effort of utilizing the honest admission of guilt and atonement to build healing in a new and democratic society.[8] Canada, from 2007-2015, completed its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address abuse of its Indigenous peoples through its residential school system.[9],[10] It has been successful enough to inspire Australia and New Zealand to consider similar steps.[8]

When the guilty admit their guilt, truth is served, including when we have only (or mostly) ourselves to blame. The problem may be more efficiently examined, and hopefully avoided in the future, both by the guilty and those observing who are truly motivated. As we have no control over how honest others are, though, we may only influence society by choosing to start with ourselves. We can only bring peace by taking responsibility for our own behavior.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, no one is discussing plans for suing the liquor manufacturers. At these meetings, people are learning to take responsibility for their addictions and then free themselves from their grip. The first step, though, is personal honesty: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”[11] The rest of the steps tell each person what they can do about it, themselves.

The fourth of these Twelve Steps is making a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” It is a very difficult step that often derails the newly sober and is commonly achieved in successive stages of increasing self-honesty over time. The steps proceed towards making amends to those persons a member might have harmed in the past and, ultimately, providing service to others. “Step Four” is placed where it can build on fertile ground to produce the greatest eventual good. Honest self-appraisal is not the final goal of self-actualization,[12] it is a means.

We can only begin with owning any efforts we make that harm not only others, but ourselves, be it shortening our lives, or contributing to our own unhappiness. Harvell Hendricks, Ph.D., the founder of Imago Therapy and author of Getting the Love You Want,[13] established a very useful conceptualization of the most common problem in marriages. He describes how we each enter a romantic relationship expecting, albeit unconsciously, that our new partner will meet all our emotional needs that others (so far) have failed to meet. After the “honeymoon” infatuation phase of blind love, each lover expects a payday. Since, of course, our unmet needs cannot be fully satisfied by the other person, conflict always ensues.

Hendricks estimates that maybe 20% of couples successfully negotiate and move pass this stage. The others end in separation or divorce, or persist in misery. The solution is recognizing the conflict for what it is, taking personal responsibility for our own needs and desires, and ceasing to ask the other person to meet them. We can learn to meet them ourselves. We can then decide if we want to enjoy the company of our partner anyway, for other reasons.

Only when we accept personal responsibility for our situation, for both our safety and our happiness, can we own the power to change. This may motivate and lead us towards clearer paths to greater personal and societal success, and to the avoidance of much of the conflict in our worlds, personal and at large. Our behavior is so much about ourselves that projecting the cause to others is so often inaccurate and misleading - nonproductive for society and truly for the individual.

Again, as the song by Jill Jackson and Sy Miller says, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

I will take full responsibility for any actions I take that threaten to shorten my existence or lead to my unhappiness.

[1] Doll R, Hill AB. Smoking and carcinoma of the lung; preliminary report. Br Med J 1950; 2:739–48. [2] “FDA Proposes New Health Warnings for Cigarette Packs and Ads.” U.S. Food & Drug Administration Web site. Accessed September 29, 2021. [3] Kathleen Michon. “Tobacco Litigation: History & Recent Developments.” Nolo Web site. Accessed September 29, 2021. [4] Sadhbh Walshe. “America's 'litigious society' is a myth.” The guardian Web site. Published October 24, 2013. Accessed September 29, 2021. [5] Fact Sheet: Tort Litigation in the United States. Center for Justice and Democracy at New York Law School Web site. Published November 12, 2011. Accessed September 29, 2021. [6] AmosTversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability.” Cognitive Psychology 5, no. 2 (September 1973): 207-232. [7] W. Kip Viscusi. Does Product Liability Make Us Safer? Adverse consequences arise from problems with the judicial system and jurors’ judgment biases. Regulation, Spring 2012: 24-31. Accessed September 29, 2021. [8] Bonny Ibhawoh, McMaster University. Do truth and reconciliation commissions heal divided nations? The Conversation Web site. Published January 23, 2019. Accessed October 6, 2021. [9] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Government of Canada Web site. Last modified June 11, 2021. Accessed October 6, 2021. [10] National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Web site. University of Manitoba. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Government of Canada Web site. Accessed October 6, 2021. [11] Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, Fourth Edition (New York City: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001): 59. [12] Abraham H. Maslow, “A theory of human motivation,” Psychological Review 50, no. 4 (July 1943): 382-383. [13] Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1988)


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