I Am Not My Past

Monday, December 10, 2007
Yesterday over at Beastliness Shawn made a comment about how the reason he was a stand-up guy was because his parents had raised him that way.

I don't want to contradict my fellow Senior Chief, but it's my opinion that people are responsible for their own actions once they become adults. Now I'll certainly concede it's easier to be a decent human being if you were raised by decent parents, but being one is still the responsibility of the individual.

The reason I feel this way is because of an exercise I learned in an ethical decision making class. The exercise goes like this:

Shawn (sorry, dude - you brought it up, so you're my hypothetical case study) has an opportunity to take two paths. The behavioral choice in path A would make Shawn a dick. The behavioral choice in path B would make Shawn a stand-up guy.

If Shawn chooses path A, is he a dick? Or is his behavior excused because his parents didn't know how to raise him?

If Shawn chooses path B, is he a stand-up guy? Or is his behavior credited to his parents because they knew how to raise him?

My opinion is that Shawn, standing on his own, is either a dick or a stand-up guy. I'm not a big fan of the double standard, and his childhood experiences are certainly mitigating factors in his decision making process, but for good or ill his decision making is his own, and can't be excused or credited based on his past.

This can be expressed a number of ways - the idea that "I am not my past," or "My childhood may have been awful, but it's over." It's certainly not fair that some people have to work their whole lives to overcome the bad experiences of their past, but guess what? Life's not fair for anyone. Some people just have to work harder, and some people will get horrible diseases, and some people will be the victims of random crime or a natural disaster. We all have our crosses to bear, and overcoming the obstacles in our lives is part of the joy and the burden of the human condition.

Which brings me back to Shawn. Shawn's parents get credit for being good parents. And while I'm glad Shawn had decent parents who taught him to be a decent human, the fact that he's a stand-up guy is to his credit, not theirs. I refuse to excuse a child molester on the grounds that he was molested by his parents, so I also refuse to give credit to parents when their adult children choose to act appropriately.

So Shawn? Thanks for being a stand-up guy.

7 comments:

Shawn Powers said...

NOTE: I'm a different Shawn. I still stand up on occasion though...

I'm with you on this one Janiece. I think that we must claim responsibility for who we are, regardless of our upbringing. I'm guessing the other Shawn might have meant he had an easier time being a stand up guy due to his upbringing, but not because of it.

I think I'm a stand up guy in spite of my upbringing. I'll agree with Shawn in the idea that our upbringing does shape us into who we are to a degree though. I am cynical, sarcastic, and deadly in a verbal argument. I credit that largely to my abusive childhood. Now, I have chosen to use those traits to make myself a better person. (ie, moving sarcasm and cynicism to humor, and, well, just being careful not to argue!)

So there, I'm playing both sides of the fence. Maybe I should run for office. Or at least go be a sit down guy for a while.

Janiece Murphy said...

Shawn P, it's never a bad time to be a stand-up guy. And I agree that having decent parents certainly makes the journey to decency an easier one. I had decent parents, and count myself damn lucky.

I have immense respect for people who overcome adversity in becoming decent human beings (yay, Shawn P!). You deserve my admiration.

I just think personal responsibility is a virtue that's in damn short supply in this world, so I want to use this forum to pimp it.

Yay, personal responsibility!

Jim Wright said...

Well, just for the record - Shawn (the other Shawn) is the most stand up guy I know, just saying (and not saying that you're saying something else - I'm just saying).

But, I agree with you for the most part. Despite the fact that a rather large number of folks cop the "I didn't know any better" plea, most of them do, in fact, know better.

It comes down choice. You either choose to be a dick, or not.

Beastly said...

OK this was not intended to start the nature vs. nurture debate nor to shift responsibility for not being a dick. The comment about how my parents raised me was intended to describe to my friends that their folks did a good job too. I do theoretically hear the voice of my folks when it comes to making that decision of being a dick or stand-up guy.
Their actions when people were suffering or just plain needed a hand are what I remember and it is embodied in my three brothers as well. We all watched the old man wire a church's new lights for free. Materials and labor. Watched my Mom bake for people who had lost a loved one because it was easier for her to do it than for the people dealing with the situation. They gave to charities, did kind acts for friends, cut breaks on jobs for the little guy tryin to get ahead and that was what they did. They echo through us and yes though we make choices they are based on experience and personal choice. I think the extreme examples of the "sex offender" is a stretch. They are sociopaths PERIOD. But when it comes to making kailu pork and picking up a relative from the airport well that is a no brainer and in my book was rooted in the example that my and my friends whom I choose to associate with parents set for us. It's about community, good fellowship and charity. Keep the post going Janiece. IT'S a topic we in our generation should discuss and think about or just live because it's the right thing to do (based on societal norms) and should be taught to our children.

Janiece Murphy said...

Jim, I'd expect nothing less from your best bud in the world. I know you're just saying, and so am I.

Shawn R., my comments about personal responsibility were not intended to imply that good parenting (and good parents) are not vitally important in raising decent, honest members of the community who aren't dicks. As my mother used to say, raising children who are "contributing members of society" is the goal of every parent - or should be. Being "fetched up right" in the house I grew up in included all the things you mentioned, and I understand about hearing your parent's voices in your head when you make a decision about what kind of person you want to be. I can never pay my parents back for being good parents - that kind of debt can only be paid forward, to my own kids, and to the community at large.

That's why I respect and admire people like Shawn P. so much. Here's a man who's a stand-up guy, not because that was the environment he grew up in, but because, as an adult, he made the conscious decision to do so, based on what he considered to be right. While I won't relax my standards just because someone's childhood was the pits, I still recognize the work and dedication it requires to fundamentally change your outlook when you come from a place like that. Yay, Shawn P.!

My example of the sex offender was a bit extreme, I agree. Consider it hyperbole to illustrate the fact that I simply will not excuse poor behavior of any kind based on someone's tragic past. I understand that it's tough to do the work and get over those childhood injuries, but people really owe it to themselves - and to society at large.

John the Scientist said...

Janiece - your example of the sex offender, unfortunately, is not that extreme. There is one in my wife's extended family, and he knows I would not welcome him on US shores. Was he abused? Yes. Did he pass it on to the next generation over there? Yes. Will I ever excuse that? No. Others in the family were also abused. They did not offend.

He's pretty scared of my FIL (it's well known in the family that the first Japanese soldier the FIL killed was decapitated with a bayonet). Now that the patriarch is getting old, it's up to the redneck with guns, lots of guns (i.e. me) to keep the kids on this side of the pond safe.

Janiece Murphy said...

John, I didn't use the sex offender example lightly. There was one in my family, too, a number of generations back.

I do think it's an "extreme example" in that it seems to me it's a heinous crime where offenders often try to excuse themselves by citing their own childhood experiences.

Of course that's a "no-go" with me, and with people I choose to associate with.

My neighbor is a postal inspector (a police officer with the postal service). One of the crimes he investigates is the use of the U.S. Mail service to traffic in child pornography. He tells me that some of the kids who are exploited are as young as 3 or 4 years old (or younger, if you can imagine). I know I'd have a "I didn't see or hear a thing, officer" attitude if they ever found a body buried in his back yard.

Keep your weapons oiled and loaded, John.