In the beginning of Shakespeare’s play “King Henry V,” King Henry contemplates when going to war is justified and whether his current circumstance justifies war. He weighs the cost of war, including the human lives that will inevitably be lost. After deciding his cause for war is just, the king feels the responsibility for his men’s lives—he closely watches over his troops, and at one point, he even calls these soldiers “we happy few, we band of brothers.” We get the sense that King Henry understands the responsibility he has because of his choice to go to war.
Unlike King Henry, human nature often leads us to avoid responsibility if possible. If we can pass the responsibility for a mistake on to someone or something else, we prefer to do that. If a student procrastinates writing a paper and then has computer problems at the last minute, the student prefers to blame the computer instead of his or her own procrastination for turning in a paper late.
How do we react when we feel we have done everything we can but the outcome still isn’t what we want? Lynn Robbins told a story recently of a shipping department he managed in a large company. The company was losing business because of the various mistakes the shipping department was making. Whenever those in charge of the department were confronted about the mistakes, they blamed another department or the freight company for making mistakes outside of their control.
Finally, Lynn Robbins said he decided to make a change—he decided to give those employees a bonus for every package delivered on time without mistakes and an extra bonus for making zero mistakes. The employees claimed it wasn’t fair that they would lose their bonus for someone else’s mistake, but something interesting happened—those employees started double-checking shipping contents, they shipped products early so they could correct mistakes if the shipment was wrong or there was some leeway if the freight company had a delay.
The shipping department stopped making errors because the employees took responsibility, whether they felt it was their mistake or someone else’s.
While we can’t always choose our circumstances, we can always choose how to react to them. In this story, the employees couldn’t control outside factors, but they could put extra checks in place to make sure mistakes were fixed before they were catastrophic.
In another scene in “King Henry V,” King Henry goes among his troops disguised so he can speak with them openly about who takes responsibility for what happens in war. One soldier says, “we are the king’s subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.”
Another solider says, “If the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make.”
The king disagrees and says to them, “Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own.” By saying this, the king asserts that it is every person’s responsibility is to act according to his or her conscience and that everyone should make decisions knowing they are responsible for those actions.
When we take responsibility for our lives and our actions, we are more likely to ask in a situation that is out of our control, “What do I have control over?” and “How can I make the best of this situation?”
These questions are more productive to our lives and happiness than statements like “Life is unfair!” or “I was placed in bad circumstances; there is nothing I can do but give in to my circumstances.”
As we take responsibility of our lives, we also take control of our happiness; there is peace in knowing we can always have a choice, even if the choice is merely to choose how we respond.