– the buck stop with me
When working with issues of justice around community and social and historical injustice, as well as in our relationship conflicts at the kitchen sink, a first and crucial step is to acknowledge the injustice that has taken place. Many conflicts cycle at the point that someone or some group cries out in outrage about a past injustice, and the group who was involved in carrying out this past injustice does not acknowledge what it has done, or individuals within that group may know nothing about it. … At the moment of denying a past injustice a new injustice is committed. A. Audegon War Hotel, pg 44.
Accountability has a clear ring of truth, where frustration, hurt and resentment can be heard and understood. Accountability is a stepping up and saying ‘this ends with me’. Or it says ‘this must change and i will do what i can to do so’. It is meeting, no matter how difficult, someone else’s suffering at injustice and validating it. Accountability then, when taken seriously as a way of meeting the past in the present moment, could be one of the biggest steps to the betterment of our world.
‘Accountability involves recognizing and validating each other’s experiences.’ pg 45 ibid.
Victim – Accountability Spectrum
I realised something during a group forum on gender when i was challenged, that my life-long identification as a victim, obscures me not only from my own power but also existing cultural and social power structures. So when exploring gender for instance, if i don’t account for the fact that i am a man, and not only that, a tall man, and also with a privileged background, it will constantly lurk in the shadows. This is before a word is spoken. So in the seemingly obvious case of being a man, it is not so seemingly obvious when i have spent a lifetime suffering under a sense of not being male enough, not providing enough, not strong enough, not successful enough etc. That was my previous narrative of myself in terms of gender. But with accountability now comes an unexpected realisation that i am not just a victim. It’s easy to point the finger at others and where they need to change, but to find change in myself beforehand, that is something we can all do to create a better world. It’s hard to really acknowledge suffering, but when i can keep my heart open to hearing the suffering of others then it can help change the situation. In personal relationships when we refuse to be accountable, we feel isolated, pg 47 ibid.
Widening accountability from the purely personal to collective issues, is a spiritual path of our time. By acknowledging my own past and the privilige i grew up with helps name something that may otherwise lurk in the background. Or in terms of gender, to notice where my maleness has shielded me from some of the suffering that women go through on a regular basis.
As long as brutality and human rights violations go unaccounted for, as long as ‘their’ story (whether African America, Native American, Jewish, Palestinian, East Timor, Central American, Afghanistan) is not considered ‘our’ story, ;our’ shared history cannot move forward. Without accountability and without feeling for and identification with our human community the veins of history are clogged. pg 50 ibid
As Arlene Audegon (the founder of my psychotherapy school) writes in the quote above, the key principle is to see us as one human family, with ‘our’ story. When i can do so, and this is a core spiritual principle, then change can happen for individuals and societies. Then any abuse to an individual is something we all suffer under.
I have spent a large part of my life feeling a victim. To a bullying elder brother, to a boarding school with daily bullying, to being sent to that school with not even realising i had a choice as to whether to go, and to an internalised sense of masculinity that oppressed my own sensitivity. Initially to flip to accountability felt like a betrayal of that identity, that i was forsaking myself for a principle. I was instinctively scared of accountability that it would not let my hurt out. So i realise that sense of betrayal is also a calling for me to take this part of me more seriously than i was and to be with the part of me that has suffered in my own time. And by acknowledging accountability it brings in its wake a freedom to feel with others. Then i can be with my own suffering and stretch to hear others too. I’ve spent my life wishing for and working for a better world, and now here is another step in that journey. To be honest I have found it difficult to be accountable and have avoided it in my life. But now wishing to do so and aspiring for it constantly helps when i am triggered by my fear to go beyond the hesitation of stepping forward. It can be in small things, like this week double booking myself. Initially i tried my normal avoidance of juggling schedules so it would not be noticed, but when i took responsibility, it can change the atmosphere to even one of relief.
Changing the past
I was consulted recently by my former boarding school about an abuse enquiry they are setting up. Truthfully i was very cynical about the school. But a couple of questions made me realise that this was not a formulaic exercise. The headmaster had asked 2 questions; whether to issue a public or private apology and secondly whether a memorial should be set up. As i was asked those questions, and honoured to feel that i had an opinion whose answer was being listened to, i realised the power in my own life of accountability. It helps to lay the past to rest, the demons of self blame, of guilt, of suffering. Those questions met me in my heart and answered a longing i knew not i had. To be taken seriously and in the new moment to repair in some form some of the damage that is now asking for accountability.
When we refuse to assume accountability, the accounts stay open. Refusing to be accountable repeats the injustice. pg 47 ibid
So i too wish to make amends as the AA 12 step folk have it. Somewhere i notice when i have not acknowledged privilege or where i have hurt others. i feel it lies on me like a guilt shadow, that i sense, but rarely see – living at the edges of my awareness. But when i do slow down, stop and acknowledge it, then it is a relief – usually to both sides. When you have suffered to have someone acknowledge hurting takes guts and brings relief. Recently on a Facebook thread i challenged the accuracy of a claim made about someone else, ‘is it true?’ i asked. When the person making the claim apologised publicly after realising it wasn’t, and modelled accountability, it moved me deeply. I felt inspired by how she did it. We all makes mistakes, and it’s in acknowledging them, that power lies.
The world is struggling with a new society where we become accountable for our pasts. Sexism, racism, homophobia, sexual abuse are almost daily in our media. To change the sense of hopelessness around these topics, i find my accountability is a way to make amends and start afresh. It is in a sense the path to the active participation in the world in the following quote. Accountability may ultimately be a process of self reflection, for individuals, communities, nations and our international community, taking stock and taking account of how we are active participants in the world. pg 29 ibid So by aspiring to be accountable when the moment needs it, then i hope to bring one small element of helping our world emerge into a more diverse and accepting place. Working in the world is a path spiritually, working with power, with struggles and the confluence of right and wrong, hurts and awareness of past resentments. Being accountable collectively and individually is a way of bringing healing to the world.
Writing this piece has taken time, as i recreate even in the writing the victim mode that has been my survival and yet who is not accountable. Initially my edits brought out more my own struggle with accountability. I have an internal critique of am i actually living this or writing it as a worthy thing to do, ticking the box of the social activist therapist? As it’s an external introduced theory, how much is in my bones so to speak and how much is from outside? All i can say right now is that whilst temperamentally accountability has been foreign, since i have taken it seriously it’s been a lodestar of where i wish to travel towards, shining a light of a different way to being. Since writing this piece i have experimented with accountability as a kind of value system to uphold – and it has worked in so far as everytime i have been accountable its brought relief to myself and others. It’s foreign, and yet also joins me with some of my deepest longings, the naive part of me that wants us all to get along, and create a happy world to live in. Going beyond my at times chronic fear, and my lifelong ambivalence around power, is a new journey. So i wanted to write not just a theory but the reality of where i am grappling and living with this ideal in my life.
Accountability is spiritual action. For those wishing for a better world, to create a heaven on earth, getting involved with the pains, struggles, betrayals, hurts and awfulness of life involves rectifying it and standing for the world we wish to create. When people stand up for the past and the present life is eased and helped for those who have suffered. It is for me spirituality in the moment, in the flesh and transforming our world. Heaven on earth is a constant work in progress and accountability is one of those steps.
The War Hotel – Psychological Dynamics in Violent Conflict – Arlene Audegon. Pubs: Whurr.