There is one word that has been thrown around lately in nearly every conversation in which I have been an active participant. It seems like I hear this word at least a dozen times a day. To make matters worse, I am convinced that perhaps in some of those conversations, I am using the word completely wrong. That word in question is “accountable.”
In daily life, we are holding our political leaders to be accountable to the public. In the workplace, we are expected to be accountable for our actions and for our results. At home, we are expected to be accountable to and for our families. Many would make an argument that due to a lack of accountability, modern society as we know it has sunk to depths of depravity and despair, the likes we have never seen before.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, accountable means “Someone who is completely responsible for what they do and must be able to give a satisfactory reason for it.”
After I read and studied that definition about a half-dozen times, I realized that maybe I, too, was a chronic abuser of the word; it was the second phrase of that definition that tripped me up: “must be able to give a satisfactory reason for it.”
A satisfactory reason. I can’t begin to describe how those three little words have flat-out rocked my world.
At work, at life, and even in the home, I have heard plenty of “satisfactory reasons.” I reflected and realized that my level of discernment isn’t as strong as it should be. My knee-jerk reactions called these “satisfactory reasons” nothing more than lame excuses.
And it’s that word “satisfactory” that really got to me. Satisfactory to who? One of the blessings of this life is that we are all created differently, yet that is where the tension arises. What can be satisfactory to one is not satisfactory to someone else.
And we have to realize that “satisfactory” is not the same as “congruent.” How many times have we tried to hold people accountable using our own values, our own judgement, our own experiences? I plead guilty.
To make matters worse, the whole idea of holding others accountable, gives us (or at least myself) this streak of self-righteousness without seeming self-righteous. I can only hold people accountable by their actions, not my own, right? Through the whole concept of accountability, I get to be judge, jury and executioner in a clean way. Heck, I might even feel like I am helping others on their own life journey.
Don’t get me wrong, accountability can be a good and necessary thing. Every person on their own journey of life needs a course correction every now and again, and accountability can help us do that.
But accountability shouldn’t be based in one’s own judgement, but rather based in the discovery of shared and fundamental values and holding each other to those values. And that can be hard.
Over the past three years, I have worked in the charitable sector. I have seen people in tough situations come to our organization looking for help in any form in which they can receive it. For those people that come to us, it is uncomfortable, it is humbling, it is difficult. It would be far too easy to hold our neighbors “accountable” and say they just need to get a job, or they made poor decisions.
But, accountability is a two-way street. When I judge others through my own limited lens, what shared values am I not following? Is judging others a shared value? Is not helping our neighbors in need a shared value?
The biggest lesson I have learned in life is that people can be messy. Not physically messy, or even spiritually or emotionally messy. But messy in a way in which our walks are all different. Let’s face it, there is no “How to Live Your Life Perfectly” book.
We each have experiences and dreams and thoughts that are unique to us. And it is in that uniqueness that our accountability needs to be about our shared values and ideals and not a projections of our own values upon others.
William “Bill” Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.