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The Myth of the Normal Family: Accept Responsibility

When Joan and I were married, we went on our honeymoon to Colorado, and on our way there stopped at the Harry Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri.  I had grown up Republican, raised by a father who didn’t care for Mr. Truman and made no bones about it, but I was a free-thinker and had just married a Democrat, so when Joan suggested we visit the Harry Truman Presidential Library, I was game. “So long as you don’t tell my father,” I told her.  Then a few years ago, the Cordrays visited the Truman library gift shop and brought me back a cane, which I gave to my dad who had been looking for a good, stout wooden cane and was delighted to get it. I didn’t tell him where the Cordrays bought it, though it does give me immense satisfaction to watch my Republican father find comfort in a Democrat cane.

I’ve been to several presidential libraries since then, and always enjoy looking at the reproductions of the Oval Office, how each Oval Office reflects the values and priorities of each president. I remember on Harry Truman’s Oval Office desk was a little sign that read, “The buck stops here.” The sign was given him by a friend, Fred Canfil, a U.S. Marshal, who had seen a similar sign while visiting the federal reformatory in El Reno, Oklahoma, where the sign had been made. He asked the warden if one could be made for President Truman, and so it was. “The buck stops here.”

We’ve been thinking about the myth of the normal family, we defined dysfunctional families as any family with more than one member. We said the root of dysfunction is immaturity, our own and others, that we are not born into sin, but we are born immature and that our lives should be a quest for wholeness.  So we were going to spend some time thinking about what maturity might look like.  Last week we said mature people, as they go out into the world, make friends not enemies. They realize it is not good for us to be alone, so work to include, not exclude, others in their lives.

Today, I want to offer another characteristic of mature people: Mature people accept responsibility for their lives. They do not make a habit of blaming others for their unhappiness or difficulties, even if they’ve been treated poorly or circumstances have been unkind to them. They know blaming others is ultimately fruitless, because it changes nothing. Indeed, mature people realize that blaming others for their problems cripples their capacity to take charge of their lives, even if their complaints about those people and groups are true.  For when our happiness depends upon someone else realizing they have hurt us, we give that person veto power over our happiness and consequently destine ourselves for unhappiness. Mature people accept responsibility for their lives, their feelings, their future. They realize if they are not committed to their own growth, wholeness, and well-being, no one else will be either. So they accept responsibility for their lives. The buck stops with them.

I wish the universe were ordered in such a way that every injustice was met with justice, and every cruelty soothed with kindness, but I am not hopeful that will happen, at least in our lifetimes. To postpone our own happiness hoping for a mythical balancing of the cosmic scales is to commit ourselves to a life of misery. The mature person says, “I will rise anyway. I will grow anyway. I will be happy anyway. I will accept full responsibility for my feelings and future and not be held back or down by those who mistreat me.”

I wish the world were not ordered this way. I wish the victims of cruelty, prejudice, and hate were justly and quickly recompensed for the hurt and harm caused them. Injustice grieves me, just as it does you, and we must work against it. But even as we work for justice, we cannot let its absence impede our well-being. Then injustice has won twice. We must grow anyway. And while it is the mark of compassion to pity those who’ve been wronged, self-pity is an extravagance, keeping us forever the victim. Mature people accept responsibility for their emotions and lives, even when reasonable people would excuse them for growing bitter or giving up.

I know a very successful woman. Wonderful marriage, happy and accomplished in her vocation, many friends, deeply respected. I assumed since she had this charmed life that her childhood must have been idyllic.

I even told her, without knowing anything about her childhood, that it must have been great.

She laughed and said, “If only you knew.”

It turns her parents were abusive alcoholics, she was living in a car at the age of 14, thrown out of her house by her mother after her step-father had molested her.

I told her how sorry I was for her.

She said, “Oh, don’t do that. My sister experienced this too, and used it as an excuse to give up. Everything bad that happens to her is someone else’s fault. It has crippled her.”

Mature people don’t just accept responsibility for their lives, they seize it.

I’m reminded of when Jesus said to his disciples, “No one takes my life from me. I will lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again.” (John 10:18)

When life has been difficult for us, it is tempting to surrender, to let others take our lives. We must find the power to always take up our lives, to live our lives with power, purpose, and determination.

At the Levi and Catherine Coffin House yesterday, I came upon a beautiful quote from Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned abolitionist, writer, and statesman. He wrote, “Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.”

Mature people accept responsibility. They know it is up to them to take up their lives and strike the blow.