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
“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.