Letting go of a false sense of responsibility – reprint of “Borrowed Problems” from 1924 Christian Science Sentinel

How can we let go of a false sense of responsibility for someone else’s actions or outcomes?

In our prison and re-entry ministry work we do our best to love our neighbor as ourselves. This includes active and sincere attention to supporting an individual’s journey of transformation from criminal thinking and action to returning home as a productive member of society.

During this work, however, it can be very easy to begin to assume a false sense of responsibility for problems and opportunities faced by our returning community members.  The article below was originally published on July 5, 1924 in the Christian Science Sentinel and has some very helpful thoughts regarding not robbing our fellow men and women of the opportunity to learn their own lessons.

It is a well-known fact in nature that if a butterfly is assisted by human hands to emerge from his outgrown cocoon, his wings will be small and weak, and often injured. How often does misguided human love dwarf and stultify the spiritual progress of some dear one by blindly saving him from the very experience which would make him grow!

This excellent article is reprinted below in full (public domain).

You can also read the article on JSH online

Borrowed Problems


July 1924 Christian Science Sentinel CoverIn the Christian Science Sentinel under date of November 12, 1904, are these words by Mrs. Eddy: “Good deeds overdone numerically, or bad deeds, are remedied by reading the Manual.” To at least one student of Christian Science this statement appeared almost startling. The reading of the Manual for the rectifying of bad deeds was easily understood, but how good deeds could ever be overdone, or in need of correction, was not so obvious.

The word “numerically” means “in point of number.” “Good deeds overdone numerically,” then, must mean good deeds overdone in point of number; in other words, good deeds done and done and overdone, until perhaps the confused recipient seems almost to lose his power to act by having everything taken out of his hands through another’s false sense of responsibility. There seems to be such a thing as doing too much for people, doing too much for the same ones, smothering them with kindness, doing their growing for them, making their demonstrations for them so that they will be saved the effort. It is a well-known fact in nature that if a butterfly is assisted by human hands to emerge from his outgrown cocoon, his wings will be small and weak, and often injured. How often does misguided human love dwarf and stultify the spiritual progress of some dear one by blindly saving him from the very experience which would make him grow!

We sometimes hear it said, rather sadly: “My problem is not working out. I have been struggling with it for so long; but try as I may, it does not seem to move.” Then there is something radically wrong with us, for God’s work is done, and the demonstration of this should go forward properly and in a divinely natural manner. The Word of Truth is just as efficacious and powerful to-day as it was twenty centuries ago, when our Master walked the shores of Galilee and overcame all forms of error with the quiet “Peace, be still” of his understanding of God. Perhaps the thing which needs to be done in some cases is to see that this problem which does not seem to work out was never ours. Many a self-constituted martyr goes staggering along life’s highway under a burden far too heavy for him to bear, so mesmerized that it never once occurs to him that he need not keep on doing so; while all the time the one to whom the burden really belongs trips lightly beside him, so mesmerized, in turn, that he is entirely undisturbed by his own responsibility in the situation.

This mistaken sense of things refers especially to cases—and their name is legion—where one member of a family seems to be, in the estimation of the others, a sort of guardian or custodian of the affairs of the entire household, tacitly appointed as such on the ground that the rest do not know enough or “haven’t time enough,” or do not care to do their part. So this faithful one patiently accepts the appointment, without request, without emolument, or even in many cases without a word of gratitude, and proceeds forthwith to sink the recipients of the so-called good deed into still deeper helplessness and dependence by assuming problems which, all the time, belong to somebody else. And then everybody wonders, rather sadly, as has been said before, why the problems do not seem to work out!

May not one reason why the servant of Elisha lost his ax head in the water, as recorded in the sixth chapter of II Kings, have been because it was not his in the first place? “Alas, master! for it was borrowed.” In this day and age we have little occasion to borrow other people’s axes; but have we never borrowed another person’s problem, and gone dragging it along after us in the misguided belief that it was ours? Perhaps this problem which has been so long in working out is only a borrowed ax, after all. It may have been placed on our shoulders so long ago, through a sense of human relationship or human love or a distorted concept of duty, that we have by this time really forgotten how it all came about, and when, and why. We only know that it is there, and that we have been carrying it all these years under the impression that we must. We have had it with us for so long that we have “got the habit,” so to speak, and can hardly realize how the landscape would look without it. But what happens when we have something which does not belong to us? It usually gets us into trouble, sooner or later, just as the borrowed ax did. Then why not return it? Why not just quietly and lovingly return it, at the very first opportunity?

There is this, too, to be remembered. If this thing which has grown to be such a load to us were really returned to the one to whom it belongs, it might cease being a load at all, and become instead only a glorious opportunity wherein the recipient of it finds his wings, and rises to mental heights undreamed of before. Then would it not be a real kindness to give this borrowed problem back? Surely, the only right and honest way is to return it, and thereby allow our loved, but hitherto defrauded one to grow by reason of the experience. If that is the right way, the right idea, it will proceed without let or hindrance to the ultimate solution of the whole situation; for it carries with it divine impulsion and power.

“But I love him so,” cries out poor, deluded human sense; “I must be kind. I must spare him this experience.” If you love him, be kind and do not rob him of the experience. That is the right way to look at it. Do we ever do any one a kindness by stepping in between him and a much needed lesson? God will give him the wisdom to utilize the occasion rightly, if we will just allow him a chance. It is safe to say that the one who owned the ax knew exactly how to use it, and never would have let it fall into the water. If our love is of the real sort, and not a poor, weak counterfeit, we shall give this dear one an opportunity to breathe a freer, fresher mental atmosphere than that laden overlong now with our smothering, stupefying, ultra-anxiety,—that which seems to have a frightened sense that if we do not do something nobody will.

That which is usually the greatest stumblingblock in the pathway along this line of light is our own submission to the claim of an exaggerated interest in some human personality. This one whose burden we have assumed, to his and our detriment, may be very dear to us, perhaps the nearest and dearest of all. If so, let us turn to the Manual, as our Leader advised in the lines quoted above, and we shall find many things which will give us pause, among others, the reminder that members of The Mother Church should not allow themselves to be influenced personally. What frequently happens when we forget this, and continue to stand between some one and the hard knocks which would be sufficient to wake him up if we did not get in the way? One of two things usually happens: either he sits down complacently and continues to let us take the hard knocks, in a sort of vague, undefined conviction that it is our duty to do so and his right to expect it; or else, if we at any time cease to save him from the natural and inevitable results of his own mistakes by stepping aside, so-called mortal mind turns upon us with a bitterness and vindictiveness which is almost amazing.

“Good deeds overdone numerically”—what misery they bring in their train for all concerned! Let us prove our love in the only right way. “However keenly the human affections yearn to forgive a mistake, and pass a friend over it smoothly, one’s sympathy can neither atone for error, advance individual growth, nor change this immutable decree of Love: ‘Keep My commandments,'” writes our Leader in “Miscellaneous Writings” (p. 118). Then suppose we do that one and only thing which we have never yet done, and step aside. Since he is suffering only from his own mistakes, his own indifference, or self-will, or mental laziness, or bad judgment, or bad habits, or bad management, or whatever it may be which has caused the trouble in the first place, will it “advance individual growth” for some one else to pay the penalty? More changeless than the laws of the Medes and Persians is the inexorable decree of wisdom, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

Let us with gratitude remember that when any one really wishes to enter the kingdom of heaven, he will just walk in of his own accord. The first and most important questions to be considered are these: Does he really desire to enter? Is he really willing to take the necessary steps which he, and he alone, must take? “A student desiring growth in the knowledge of Truth, can and will obtain it by taking up his cross and following Truth,” writes Mrs. Eddy on page 86 of “Retrospection and Introspection.” “If he does this not, and another one undertakes to carry his burden and do his work, the duty will not be accomplished. No one can save himself without God’s help, and God will help each man who performs his own part. After this manner and in no other way is every man cared for and blessed.”


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