Responsibility

Wrestling with responsibility

Those of us who injure or kill others in accidents struggle with
complex questions about responsibility. Some of us cause damage, even though we are neither reckless nor negligent, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of us have made serious mistakes, such as driving drunk, neglecting to secure construction equipment or providing inappropriate medical treatment.

I torture myself again and again as to how I could do such a thing.”
[M., forgot his ten-month old son in the car, who died of
hyperthermia]

“I started watching murder shows a lot on television. It made me feel
better about myself. With every intentional murder, I would think,
‘Well at least I’m not as bad as that guy. What I did was accidental.’”
[J., accidentally killed her boyfriend in a car crash]

“Although I clung to the fact that I was not at fault, the accident
seemed to confirm longstanding fears that my desires were
untrustworthy, even dangerous. In seeking my own freedom, I had
killed a child. Just as some people are natural healers, I decided I
was naturally destructive.”
[Maryann, accidentally killed a child who ran
into the road]

Confronting our level of responsibility for the accident is an important step in transforming trauma to growth. Some of us must commit to important changes, such as sobriety, anger or impulse control, or giving up certain activities (e.g., a senior citizen may need to give up driving). When people deny responsibility, change is delayed, and they place themselves and others at continued risk of future accidents.

At the time of the accident, were you abusing alcohol or drugs? Were you sleep-deprived? Distracted? Angry? Showing off? Has age or illness slowed your reactions or reduced your vision or hearing? Make the changes you need to make to reduce the chances of another accident. Then, you can move on and address other issues.

On the other hand, some of us blame ourselves even in the absence
of any evidence of negligence or fault. For this group, giving up the
illusion of control may be so frightening that they prefer to believe in their own responsibility.

In many cases, the causes of the accident are unclear, the people
involved may not remember what occurred, and witness accounts may conflict. In this situation, CADIs must learn to accept ambiguity and confusion.

Most CADI’s ask themselves why their accidents had to happen. After my accident, I wondered why my car had to be at that particular spot at that exact moment a child ran into the road. Had one of us left just a few seconds earlier or later, or had I driven just a few miles per hour faster or slower, the accident would never have happened.

Some believe that accidents are God’s will; others believe they are the result of random forces or simple chance. The beliefs we hold about why accidents occur affect the way we respond. A popular belief today is that there is no such thing as an accident, and that what appear to be accidents are manifestations of unconscious wishes or karma. Such beliefs can increase guilt and shame. They can also deprive people involved in accidents of compassion from others.

You may want to discuss these or other issues with a counselor,
member of the clergy, or a good friend. There are no right or
wrong answers, but wrestling with these issues will help you decide
how best to move ahead, with integrity and courage.

The Links and Good Books sections of this website offer additional resources that you may find helpful in sorting out issues of responsibility and control.

3 thoughts on “Responsibility”

  1. I’m really struggling with guilt right now. About two months ago (and only two weeks after my wedding), I noticed a firefly had gotten into our house late one night. Trying to be a good person, I caught it and opened our back door to let it out. I didn’t realize that one of my cats ran out under my feet in the few seconds the door was open. I’ve had him for 16 years old, since he was a kitten, and he’s never wanted to go outside. I have no idea what made him decide to run out that night. After I came in I noticed our other cat looking at the door more than usual, but thought she was just looking for the bug. It was really late so we went to bed. It was only the next morning I realized he was missing, and even then I wasn’t sure at first if he was hiding in the house or outside.

    We’ve spent the last two months combing the neighborhood, handing out flyers and posters, contacting vets and shelters, using online resources, etc. etc. etc. We’ve found a lot of other cats but not him. I’m consumed with guilt over not noticing he got out and fearing what happened to him. We pray that he found another home but all of the other awful scenarios play out in my mind. I knew we’d lose him someday but I never dreamt it would be like this. The not knowing is soul-crushing in a way I’ve never experienced before. Do we keep looking? When do we give up? What more could we do? I would give everything I have to just have those few moments back to keep him from getting out.

    I will say my new husband, who also loves our cats, has been the most wonderful and supportive partner I could have ever hoped for. He’s knows how wracked with guilt I am and doesn’t blame me or do anything to make me feel worse than I already do. I definitely married the right man. This just isn’t how I wanted to start our married life. I don’t feel like I’ll ever be able to forgive myself. It feels like 16 years of loving and caring for my “baby” vanished in one moment of inattention.

  2. I was cleaning out my storeroom just before Christmas and had put some spray chemicals on the outdoor table along with snail pellets which had never been opened, they were in strong plastic packaging and a plastic screw top had to be opened to disburse them. I contemplated putting all of this back in my storeroom overnight but thought no it should be fine because everything was sealed and I had put some items around everything as a barrier. In the middle of the night my beautiful upg dog who is inside at night went out through the doggy door and got on the table, pushed the snail pellets off the table and tore open the ‘pet resistant’ packaging (I read that on the packaging after), she ate 250g and was rushed to the vet and given aggressive treatment but didn’t make it. I have always done everything to protect my pets and this time I made a big mistake. I did not think that would happen but why didn’t I just st put them back in the storeroom? I feel really guilty and responsible as I put the dog that I loved so much at risk which wasn’t my intention at all.

  3. Something about responsibility:
    I’m a nurse and 3 years ago I ran to help at a bike/car accident. I moved someone to get them in a straight position, when in fact they had a spinal break. I’m pretty sure I caused them further spinal injury. They are now ~80% paralysed, but regaining movement slowly.
    For a long while I felt I should have known better. He could have walked away with full movement if I hadn’t stupidly moved him. Especially with my health and first aid knowledge.

    But it’s taught me a lot about hindsight. Most of my fretting and self-hatred came from what I knew in hindsight. We must never use hindsight to condemn what we’ve done in the past. We did what we thought was right in the moment, with all its stress and fear. We can use hindsight to alter what we may do in the future. We can prevent others from doing the same thing. But we must not use hindsight to load layers of regret and anger on top of what responsibility we hold.
    I did something negative, but with good intentions. I admit responsibility, but I’ve stopped letting hindsight affect my self worth.

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