"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 6, 2015

Taking Responsibility–Why Is It So Hard?

Emilia Rosales was an excellent maid and nanny.  She took care of the Trumbull children with care and affection.  She was a decent cook given the right instructions, and her stone-ground corn tortillas were better than in any Salvadoran restaurant; even better than the ones Bob Trumbull ate every day while covering the civil war for Reuters. Emilia had come to the United States on a tourist visa.  It elapsed and she would have continued living in the United States illegally if it hadn’t been for Esther Trumbull, Bob’s wife who helped get her working papers, a social security number, a green card, and finally American citizenship. 

Emilia had had her own small businesses in San Miguel – a taqueria on the central plaza and a sewing shop off the Alameda – and she had no intention of emigrating despite the civil war.  As the conflict dragged on for longer than she had hoped, and the violence became closer and more extreme, her desire to escape to El Norte became more urgent.  Her husband, however, had been rapidly promoted to the rank of Colonel in the Army, her children were still in school, and her mother was not well; so she chose to stay.

Within six months, however, the situation in San Miguel became worse.  The death squads of Roberto D’Aubuisson, said to act on secret orders of the Salvadoran military where her husband was a high-ranking officer were hitting close to home, and the opposition Leftist radicals had intensified their offensive.  Emilia was caught between allegiance to her husband and concern for her safety and the well-being of her children.  As any mother would do, she decided in favor of her son and daughter and somehow managed to obtain safe and legal passage to America.

Despite the shame of working as a servant after years as a successful entrepreneur and wife of a respected military colonel, she treated her employers and her job with respect.

Emilia had only one fault, said Bob Trumbull, one that was really not hers but an ingrained Latin American trait of passivity and fatalism. No one took responsibility, he said. Emilia said  se me cayó” instead of “I dropped it”; or “se me olvidó” instead of “I forgot”; and passed on that casual indifference to his children.  His son, who was only 3 at when Emilia joined the household, began to speak in English the way Emilia did in Spanish. “It dropped”, he would say; or “It broke”. At first Bob, was was bi-lingual, thought that his son’s transliteration was only linguistic; but he soon saw that it was more than that. His son had learned that deferring responsibility was easier, less complicated, and certainly more convenient than accepting it.  Although he never could prove it, he concluded that his son’s easy ethics were a result of his years with the Salvadoran nanny.

Bob was too harsh on his son.  Most people defer if not avoid responsibility. Politicians who are guilty of the most offensive insults to their constituents make public apologies without accepting guilt. “I am sorry if I offended…..(fill in the blanks)” is the moral equivalent of se me cayó.

Image result for images governor sanford public apology

Dostoevsky speaking through the character Ivan Karamazov argued for the unification of church and state because, said Ivan, what better moral governor than guilt? There would be far fewer crimes against the state if they were crimes against God.  In a secular society of moral relativism, then responsibility is a function of caveats.  Se me cayó because (fill in the blanks) social, economic, and environmental factors have been responsible for my sexual delinquency, financial neglect, ethical lapses.


Entire countries have refused to accept responsibility.  For decades France refused to accept its complicity in the Holocaust.  Thousands of French police willingly followed Nazi directives to round up Jews for deportation to concentration camps and gas chambers; and thousands more French citizens willingly denounced Jewish neighbors. Tens of thousands of Germans willingly ignored the Nazis’ systematic elimination of the Jews. Those Americans who supported the militant anti-Communism of the Vietnam era have conveniently swept their complicity in an unjust war under the rug. Those who backed George W. Bush in his shortsighted war against Iraq refuse to accept at least partial responsibility for the chaos in the Middle East.


Jews say they have no blood on their hands for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Christians say that the Crusades were the very just war that St. Augustine exhorted.  Joan of Arc deserved to be burned at the stake. Henry V was absolutely right in pursuing feeble claims of legitimacy in a brutal and decimating war against the French.

Joan of Arc

So much is at stake in accepting responsibility – national pride and honor; moral rectitude; social standing and acceptance; personal honor.  None of us individually or collectively can lose face, back down, admit complicity if not guilt.

My daughter when she was barely two, took a second edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and scribbled crayon markings all over the illustrations. “I did that”, she said – an absolute, unequivocal, honest statement of responsibility.  Of course she was too young to know how valuable the book was, or how angry it would make her parents; but the innocence and complete, unmediated acceptance of responsibility has never left me.

Image result for images a child's garden of verses

“You have a silver tongue”, a colleague said to me.  I took it as a compliment, for indeed I was able to convince most anybody about anything. I had been gifted with an agile intelligence, a sensitivity to the needs and desires of others, and a particularly convincing eloquence.  “I didn’t mean it as a compliment”, he said. “On the contrary.  You have no sense of responsibility.”

I listened, but did not agree. In any contractual agreement, is there right and wrong? Or simply a statement of position? If I was able to convince people of the rightness of my opinion, regardless of its detractors, did that deny its legitimacy?

In other words, I sided with Bob Trumbull’s son who inadvertently and accidentally had learned the art of relativity. Is responsibility the duty of the buyer or the seller? Isn’t everything negotiable?

Which is why I cannot be too hard on the French or the Germans during the World War II era. Responsibility is relative and it is very difficult to conclude right.  Adolph Eichmann, for example, said that he was just following orders; and regardless of the larger moral implications of sending thousands to the gas chambers, he was innocent.  The French villager living under the Vichy regime who turned in his Jewish neighbor had to do it because he had no power and feared for his life.  The fact that he hated Jews and was glad that finally someone had understood the necessity of a Final Solution was beside the point. The East German who turned in friends, family, and neighbors to the Stasi could not do otherwise. Why point the finger of blame at them?

It is very hard to conclude that we all are so craven and venal; that it takes so little to make us cave, capitulate, and given in to what we know is not right. Perhaps it is the ineluctable force of human nature which we can blame.  We were programmed to be self-centered, self-interested, and self-serving.  What do you expect?

Ivan Karamazov as the Grand Inquisitor blames Christ for demanding too much of Man and for consigning him to misery in the hope of salvation; but he is also indicting mankind for its lack of moral backbone.  “Miracles, mystery, and authority” is all that we want, he says.  Free will and the moral responsibility that comes with it mean nothing.

“I did that”, said my daughter when she was two. I wish I could be so honest.

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