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Perfection and Responsibility: Are We Really Always Doing Our Best?

By Marina Michaels


In this essay, I approach the topics of responsibility and the belief that people are "doing the best they can" at the everyday, practical level. At the highest level, I believe that no matter how badly we screw up, intentionally or unintentionally, ultimately the outcome will be good. And for me, it will be. If you believe otherwise, then you will experience a different reality. In other words, these are my beliefs; your mileage may vary.

Summary of this article

At some level (more cosmic for some than for others) we all have the intention to do the best we can and to contribute to ourselves and others in a way that maximizes love and joy. That intention can be very conscious and very close to the surface in some, and it can be so deeply buried in others that those people don't remember the intention until they die—if then. At that level, whatever is done will be ultimately converted to the good. But in the apparency that we call earth, it isn't always obvious what the positive good is. And, it isn't always true that we do the best we can.

Everyone Is Doing Their Best?

Some time ago I had a rather heated and, ultimately, unsatisfactory email exchange with someone (who hasn't emailed me since) about the idea that people e always do the best they can in any given situation.

I was speaking specifically of parents, and I think I must have pushed a few of that person's own parenting buttons. She wanted desperately to believe that she and her husband had made no mistakes, and I can understand why, because both their children were on various addictive medically-prescribed drugs as a direct result of errors they, the parents, had knowingly made.

In other words, they were living proof of my assertion, and they, like most of the rest of the world, were in deep denial over their own roles in the difficulties their children were facing.

So what specifically did I say that got this person so hot under the collar?

The assertion

It is a popular notion to assert that everyone is always doing the best that they can do in any given situation at any point in time. This is a particularly useful defense for parents, who, when faced with their iniquities as thrown up before them by their children, retreat into the "But darling, we were doing the very best we could do" defense.

It is my admittedly rather hard-headed and potentially controversial position that, in fact, unless you have iron integrity and high ethical standards that you stick to, most of us do not always do the best we can.

Allow me to elucidate.

When I worked for companies as an employee, I noticed that a certain number of people would help themselves to company supplies—a pen, a pad of paper, some Post-It notes—usually nothing very expensive (which makes it more reprehensible, not less—and I'll get to why I say that soon).

Where I come from, that's called "stealing." Stealing means to take something without right or permission, usually in a sneaky way. Most of us know better; most of us know it is wrong, and refrain from it.

Some of us, however, can find reasons why stealing from their company is okay. In the "everyone is doing the best they can" paradigm, people who take a box of pens home are doing the best they can; they have no other choice but to take those pens. But this doesn't jibe with the fact that the people I knew who did it admitted that it was stealing. They didn't say, "I have a right to this and the company has given me permission." (Sometimes companies do give permission. Then it isn't stealing, and is therefore not the subject of this essay.) Instead, they said that it was okay to steal.

When I have (as tactfully as possible) questioned people about why they feel it is okay to be stealing from their company, their justifications ran something along these lines:

None of these justifications meet my smell test of "doing the best they can." In fact, it is quite clear that these people know they are doing something against their own ethical standards, and they are trying to find reasons why it is okay to do so. In other words, they are not living/acting according to their highest truth at the moment they take that box of pens.

Diminished self-esteem

Whenever we do something that is against what we conceive of as the best possible way to behave, we feel diminished, sometimes even degraded. Do it often enough, and our feelings about ourselves drop pretty far. Just about the only way to recover from a mistake is to admit it and try to make good to whoever else was affected by it, even if the only person affected was ourselves. However small the victory, we feel better, often disproportionately so, about ourselves, and this is all to the good.

If we instead do something we feel is wrong, something we feel bad about doing and yet continue to do it, then we feel even further diminished, because then the tendency is to think that we aren't even in control of ourselves. Sometimes, people do continue to make the same mistake, even when they know it is a mistake, because their self-esteem is already at such a low point that admitting to themselves that they are behaving in a less-than-perfect manner would bring them to a roaring chaos of held-back emotions about themselves and their fundamental perception about themselves that they lack worth.

When you think about it, the essential process here is that these people are selling their integrity for a box of 59-cent pens. This is the value they place on their integrity, and hence on themselves. The situation is made worse (their self-esteem is further lowered) by the very cheapness of the item they are stealing. Pile on top of that the fact that they don't make good and in fact keep repeating the petty thefts, and you have a good process for creating a downward-spiraling sense of self-esteem, with everything that goes along with it.

The final blow is that these people know that they are not being forced to do these actions; these actions are simply their choice to do less than their best. (I am setting aside for now those who are so far gone—so unconscious and unthinking—that they aren't even aware of what they are doing.)

We do have a choice

When I look at this kind of situation, and the other kinds I can think of (such as losing your temper and choosing to throw something, or hit someone; or choosing to be aggressive while driving, and so on), I find it hard to say that we are all doing the best we know how at all times. To claim that we are is to say that self-awareness, self-discipline (or self-control), and taking responsibility for our actions is beyond our abilities to attain. This means that every mistake we have made, whatever our intent, was inevitable—we had no choice. There never was a point at which we could have stopped and said, "I better not lose my temper here," or "Maybe I should leave these pens here and buy my own box at the Price Club."

Clearly, this is not true. We are all capable of choosing to behave one way or another. Nobody points a gun at our heads and says, "Steal these pens." Most of us know we have a choice. Many times we choose to let something slide, to screw up a little or a lot because, for whatever reason, we don't think it matters—to us, to others—enough to make the effort to do what we feel is right.

Doing our best versus a good outcome

Along with my belief that we are actively and consciously choosing how to behave, and that we do at times choose to behave differently from what we know how to do, goes the idea that regardless of what we do, it will come out okay in the end. This is not the same as saying that it was the most optimal thing we knew to do in the first place. It is to say that my belief is that we are all white-water rafting down the river of life toward a grand future, not a degenerate one. This doesn't absolve us of trying our best to do our best at all times.

Judging others

It also doesn't mean that we need to judge or criticize others. However, if someone has been or is continually screwing up in a way that is hurting you, and they know it and you know it—and they use the excuse that they were only doing the best they could, then you know they are hiding behind a New Age platitude to escape responsibility for their own actions. And you can take action accordingly.

I am not saying it is our role to tell others what the "right" thing is for them to do. Each person must decide for him or herself what moral code to follow. However, there are two points I want to make:

  1. In the examples in this essay, people were behaving against their own moral codes, not mine.
  2. We all have the right to declare what is and isn't okay behavior around ourselves. If someone doesn't like our boundaries, they can deal with it however they like, but they don't have the right not to respect them.

Speaking out for our own truth

I believe in standing by my own code, and so, although I may not comment upon someone else's actions if not called to do so, I also will not speak against my own integrity and tell others that whatever they want to do is okay.

For example, a woman I once met spoke of how she always asked for water (which was free) at a restaurant that serves cafeteria-style, then later would go up and get (for free, by reason of having the glass) refills of soft drinks (which of course the restaurant normally charged for). My response was to say, "I can see where that might be tempting," which was the closest I could come to being polite about her petty theft.

Because she already knew what she was doing was wrong, she was abashed by my response. She had expected me to act like a co-conspirator and tell her she was very clever in her thievery.

Was I right in saying anything at all? Arguably, no. One could rightly say that it was none of my business and that I wasn't involved, and indeed I wasn't—until the woman involved me by talking about it. Then, by my definition of "right," the only right thing I could do was to let her know, as gently as possible, that I didn't approve of her behavior. (For one thing, what might she think was okay to steal next? Something from my house?)

It would have been against my truth to tell someone that what they were doing that was against my own moral code was okay. It would also have been against my truth to tell her that what she was doing against her own moral code was okay. In this woman's case, her moral code said that stealing was not okay, and yet she was doing it, thereby doing harm to herself.

An interesting question to me is, if she questioned herself about her petty thieveries, which she does feel are wrong, and decided not to do them anymore, how would that then affect her life in other areas? If she starts to show more integrity (or at least responsibility) in one area of her life, will she then free up some energy and awareness for other areas? It is my (perhaps vain) hope that by living and speaking my truth, I can model to others that it is possible for them to live theirs.

This is not to say that we don't make mistakes. I know I do, and I'm sure everyone else does too. The nature of the mistakes we make and how we handle them varies from person to person, though I think it is important that we acknowledge that we do make mistakes, and that we take responsibility for them and try to make up for the consequences in whatever way we can.

A dirty word in America: Responsibility

Responsibility is a dirty word for many Americans. Witness the flack Bill and Hilary Clinton received when they started to talk of everyone accepting responsibility for themselves. Talk about buttons! Responsibility is a big one.

I give you a real-life court case as an example. Some parents left their two young boys unattended in their house, and allowed them to have a Bic lighter to play with while they were alone.

The inevitable happened: The boys started a fire, and the house and the boys were damaged.

Did the parents acknowledge that they had screwed up? Did they say, "We should have known better than to let boys play with fire unattended?" (Or better yet, "We should never have left them unattended to start with")? Nope.

Instead, they sued Bic because there wasn't a warning on the package saying, "Do not allow your young children to play with this lighter unattended." The truly incredible thing is, the jury awarded the parents something like 1.2 million dollars.

Imagine. The parents were rewarded for being irresponsible. The jury sympathized with their "plight" and, in effect, said, "Yes, yes, we're sure you were doing the best you could, poor pitiful brainless people that you are, but the Big Bad Bic corporation, on the other hand, wasn't. No, no, that's all right, it isn't your responsibility as parents to watch over and care for your children, nor is it your responsibility to know what is and isn't safe. Instead, it is the corporation's responsibility to give you parenting advice and guidance, and to pay for it if they fail to do so and your children get hurt somehow."

Sheesh. This decision opens up such a can of worms that the mind boggles.

For me, this is part of what's wrong with our culture—we've gone a little too far overboard with the concept that it is all rosy and fine whatever we do, and that we are all doing the best we can. This is what leads to defenses by murderers such as, "I can't help myself. I come from a dysfunctional family. I was just so angry at my father that I had to kill all those people." (Or, "I had no other choice than to get drunk and drive. So what if I killed someone's lovely daughter? I'm not responsible for my actions.")

The "everyone is doing their best" creed gives many people an automatic way out: It says, in effect, that whatever they do, they aren't responsible for either their actions or the consequences. This isn't to say that everyone who espouses this belief is irresponsible, of course.

I call this the "Twinkie madness" defense. (For those who aren't familiar with that reference, many years back, some male being shot and killed a San Francisco supervisor, Harvey Milk. His defense? "I'm not responsible; I was on a junk-food diet that included Twinkies and other non-nutritional items." The news media dubbed this the "Twinkie madness" defense.)

Saying that we are all doing the best we can at any given time, and that therefore we cannot be held accountable for our actions by others, is simply a New Age refinement of the Twinkie madness defense.

I have to admit that I too once espoused the "doing the best we can" philosophy, until I got a wake-up call and spent a few moments thinking the implications through and checking the belief against my own experiences. My, did I feel sheepish.

Copyright © 1995, 1996 by Marina Michaels. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, please see my contact information page.

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