A Fresh Look at Accountability



BY JEAN MARIE JOHNSON

With the end of summer, the accountability focus shifts into high gear. Teachers get their lesson plans in order, and kids turn their attention to the discipline of organized learning and homework assignments. How I loved that! While most of my peers groaned their way through the first weeks of September, bit by bit relinquishing the freedom of summer, I rejoiced. For me, learning was, in some weird, idiosyncratic way, fun. Actually, more than fun. For one thing, while the teacher, and later the professor called the shots, I determined early on that I was the one who was really in control. I understood that I determined the level of interest I had in any given subject and the degree of effort I would accordingly expend. I determined what I wanted to learn, what grade I would aim for, and what I would hold myself accountable for. That self-determined accountability worked for me and transferred to so many other areas of my life. It became a psychologically healthy way for me to navigate my unfolding journey.

I’ve given a lot of thought to accountability in this year of affliction and upheaval. Many of us have done the same as we question who and how to help in both large and small ways, as we perhaps reexamine our assumptions and our beliefs.  On one of my morning walks, my deep dive into accountability brought back an iconic line from the iconic 1970 movie, “Love Story.” Popularized as “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” the sentiment baffled me for the longest time. It was an inherently ridiculous idea, wasn’t it?

If you make a mistake, you say, “I’m sorry.”

If you hurt someone you love, you say, “I’m sorry.”

If you fail to come through on a commitment, you say, “I’m sorry.”

If you bump into someone accidentally or cough in their direction and not in your sleeve, you say, “I’m sorry.”

And yes, if you get caught red-handed doing something you really shouldn’t, you might even fall back on the well-practiced, “I’m sorry.”

So goes the conventional wisdom. The “issue” with being “sorry” is that it is simply too convenient. With so much “Sorry” or “Sorry, my bad” being tossed about, what does it really mean…and what does it matter?

It has taken me a long time to realize what I already knew way back in middle school: that not having to say you’re sorry means two things.

  1. Keeping your commitment to your own values and,
  2. Keeping your word to others

I think that’s what “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” was intended to mean in the movie, “Love Story.” When I look through a bifocal lens of accountability to my values and accountability for keeping my word to others, I limit when and how often I say “I’m sorry” because most of the time, I am making the right choices.

Recently, I made a flippant remark to a good friend, a comment that disregarded one of her key values. To her extreme credit, she shared her surprise and disappointment in me. I had hurt her feelings, yes. But more to the point, respecting each other’s values, especially those that are different, is part of the glue that bonds us. I OWN that. I am accountable for that accountability misstep. I am grateful for that moment-of-truth because it reminds me that as long as I have breath, I am accountable for how I use it.


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