June 13, 2003

Editorial: The Responsibility for What We Do Not Do

by Gregg Krech

"We are responsible not only for what we do but also for what we could have prevented." --Peter Singer, Professor of BioEthics, Princeton University

Nearly 15 years ago I sat on a cushion facing a blank wall in a retreat center surrounded by rice paddies in Japan. I was taking two weeks to do nothing but reflect on how I had lived since I was born (referred to as a Naikan Retreat). At one point I was asked to reflect on ways that I had lied during my lifetime. I was given a set of guidelines to help me think about different ways to lie. One of those ways was to "withhold the truth." As I went through my life, year by year, I saw how often my lying took the form of deception by simply not speaking up--not telling the truth. This form of lying is the easiest to rationalize, because there is no deceptive action needed, only deceptive inaction. People are misled, deceived, inconvenienced--we simply remain silent.

There are other forms of inaction which contribute to the problems and suffering of others. We may commit to a responsibility and then forget or become too busy to do what we said we would do. Others must then pick up the pieces of our inaction. We leave our personal belongings lying around and create a mess for others. We don't vote and then complain about the course of action our government is taking. We leave legitimate debts unpaid. We fail to warn someone of a danger or risk which results in injury. The list is endless. We fool ourselves into thinking we are living a life of integrity simply because we lack a culpable action. Though our culpability is invisible we still must accept responsibility for what we do not do--particularly when we know, in our hearts, that something must be done, must be said.

Not long after my Naikan retreat I was working in a refugee camp on the Cambodian border. There was an orphanage there overflowing with children. Many had lost their parents in the violence. Some of those parents had stepped on land mines trying to flee that violence. They were there one minute and gone the next. Over 35,000 Cambodians became amputees because of those land mines. Entire villages of people were displaced. Many of the children there had grown up in a refugee camp; they never knew the joy of a park playground or a museum. The suffering I witnessed from that war lasted far beyond the end of the war. It still goes on as you read this essay.

We know that there is no military technology that will prevent the death and injury and suffering of thousands of innocent people. We won't see that suffering. And when the bombing ends and the war is over we'll be under the illusion that the suffering is over. But it won't be. And we'll be under the illusion that because we didn't personally fire a weapon we have no responsibility for the death and suffering of others. But silence and inaction do not absolve us of responsibility. It's just the opposite. There is nothing we are more responsible for than doing and saying nothing.

Gregg Krech is the editor of Thirty Thousand Days: A Journal for Purposeful Living and author of the award-winning book, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press, 2002).

Posted on June 13, 2003 3:10 PM

Thanks for sharing. I have gotten great insight from this article.

Posted by: C. Njie on February 13, 2004 3:56 AM

Thought provoking.

Posted by: Mary Holm on September 29, 2003 12:25 PM

It is much more fulfilling to reflect on successful accomplishments than it is to be reminded of the moments when we showed no backbone. Although it is good to be reminded of what or who not to be, it is also an added reminder of how one evolves. This article gave me a moment to look back and remember when an inability to speak up and act was once my handicap but now, not anymore.

Posted by: Christine Kim on August 19, 2003 8:25 PM

Failing to act will stay in our minds longer and more vividly than those thing that we actually have done and might have or not gone wrong. The stress involved with the lack of action will actually spiral us down deeper into the rote of habitual drifting without awaareness.

Thank you for this article!

Posted by: Carlos Gomez on July 14, 2003 12:29 AM
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