Therapy, like life, requires taking responsibility for what becomes of you. But, as the comedy team Cheech & Chong famously noted, “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” What does that have to do with “the Nuremberg Defense?” Read on.
If you are old enough (or a good student of history) the word Nuremberg has a certain resonance for you. It is a German town that was a center of the Holy Roman Empire and the Renaissance; later becoming the host of Nazi Party rallies between 1927 and 1938, the site of the passage of the Nuremberg Laws stripping German Jews of their citizenship, and equally well-known for the war crimes trials that were held after WWII, in an attempt to hold Nazi villains to account. Such Nazi higher-ups as Hans Frank, Rudolph Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg, Albert Speer, and Julius Streicher were brought to justice there (see above photo); Hermann Goering escaped hanging only by committing suicide.
A common refrain during the testimony of the accused was the statement “I was only following orders.” This line of explanation was used so often that it became known as “the Nuremberg Defense.” It was found insufficient by the judges, who reasoned that the accused had the moral responsibility to refuse orders to commit “crimes against humanity,” even assuming that it could be demonstrated that such orders were given.
Since I don’t treat war criminals, you might be asking yourself how the failure of some of these long-dead Nazis to take responsibility applies to treating people with less dramatic problems of depression or anxiety or relationship disappointment? In the course of talking with my patients, I often discover that they have suffered from some sort of misfortune; be it inadequate, negligent, or abusive parents; accident or injury; or unfair treatment at school, at work, or in love. Sometimes the stories are heartbreaking. It is perfectly proper for patients to blame at least part of their unhappiness on these events and these people. Moreover, it is often essential that they grieve those losses, give voice to their anger and sadness, and rail against the unfairness of life. And it is important for a therapist to help them as they process their grief.
But therapy cannot end there.
The patient, if he is to improve his life, cannot simply assign responsibility to some other person as a release from the need to take charge of what becomes of himself in the future, any more than a Nuremberg defendant might hope that assignment of responsibility to the commanding officer would take him off the hook for the unspeakable acts he committed.
Put more simply, neither the war crimes defendant nor the common therapy patient can point to someone else, say “He is the one who caused this,” and leave things at that. Just as the SS criminals were asked, “And then what did you do?” so must we all, regardless of what misfortune has happened to us, ask ourselves, “Now what? Do I simply accept the injustice, forever blame others, and stay defeated and aggrieved in-perpetuity, or do I grieve my loss, take responsibility for my life, and try to get beyond the injuries I’ve suffered?”
We all know people who, however small or large the disappointment that they have experienced, never get beyond criticizing, blaming, whining, and feeling sorry for themselves. While some of this is often necessary to get past the hurt, a lifetime of it is simply a waste, a personal failure to take control and to admit and accept that if life is to have meaning and value, we all have to do something positive with that life, regardless of bad breaks. Even if fairness demands that others compensate us for our losses, if such compensation cannot be obtained, life still calls us to repair ourselves. As a therapist colleague of mine, at the risk of sacrilege, used to tell those patients who seemed to forever bemoan their fate, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”
Shakespeare commented on responsibility-taking in Julius Caesar when he gave Cassius the words:
“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
This is not always literally true. But there is no better way to live than to try to make our circumstances the best we can, however unlucky our lot. A good therapist will help you get there.