President Truman kept a plaque on his desk with the phrase ‘The buck stops here,” meaning it was his job to make decisions and to accept responsibility for those decisions. President Jimmy Carter pulled that plaque out of storage to keep the reminder in front of him as well.
But what does it mean? A quick Wikipedia search comes up with two possible etymologies:
The expression is said to have originated from poker, in which a marker or counter (such as a knife with a buckhorn handle during the American Frontier era) was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal he could pass the responsibility by passing the “buck”, as the counter came to be called, to the next player.
Another less common but arguably less fanciful attribution is to the French expression bouc émissaire, meaning “scapegoat”, whereby passing the bouc is equivalent to passing the blame or onus. The terms bouc émissaire and scapegoat both originate from an Old Testament (Lev. 16:6–10) reference to an animal that was ritually made to carry the burden of sins, after which the “buck” was sent or “passed”into the wilderness to expiate them.
So, either a refusal to take responsibility and kick the can down the road, or an intentional decision to blame someone else for your own actions. In either event, passing the buck is a refusal to take responsibility and act on it.
It can be difficult to discern what is our responsibility. One could argue we have a responsibility to fix harm we’ve caused, to prevent harm within our power to prevent, and to accept blame and credit when due. But these aren’t bright lines, and often decisions are complex and complicated by the actions and responsibilities of other players. That’s where the Serenity Prayer comes in:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.
For those things within your control, have the courage to change what you can and to do your part.
In all the din, what is one voice more? Why bother speaking up? No one seems to listen to each other anymore anyway.
But inside you is a well spring, and you’re fueled by truth and an honest desire to help others. Your opinion matters.
Consider these words from Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Who are you to speak up?
You are a child of God. Let God’s light shine on a dark world through your words.
Standing up to fear changes a person. It helps you to put matters in perspective. Where once fear loomed over you, insurmountable, now you can honor the courage it took to move past it into unfamiliar territory.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a courageous woman. Despite her husband’s attempts to placate the South, she regularly bucked segregation and was a vocal proponent of civil rights. She was able to call out racism and force others to see it for what it was:
By 1939, ER decided to attack the hypocritical way in which the nation dealt with racial injustice. She wanted her fellow citizens to understand how their guilt in “writing and speaking about democracy and the American way without consideration of the imperfections within our system with regard to its treatment . . . of the Negro” encouraged racism. Americans, she told Ralph Bunche in an interview for Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma, wanted to talk “only about the good features of American life and to hide our problems like skeletons in the closet.” Such withdrawal only fueled violent responses; Americans must therefore recognize “the real intensity of feeling” and “the amount of intimidation and terrorization” racism promotes and act against such “ridiculous” behavior.
You can’t clearly see a problem before you if you are too scared to look at it and call it out for what it is.
It takes courage to love, doesn’t it? Particularly after we’ve been hurt and know how vulnerable we can be. How much safer it would be to protect ourselves from being completely known, from loving wholeheartedly, from reaching out to others. But living behind a facade is a recipe for loneliness. Walling others out also walls us in. Going it alone directly contradicts the foundational truth that we are all interconnected whether we choose to be or not.
Love is the great adventure. It is the answer to the what, how, and why we are here. So have the courage to trust love one more time…and always one more time.
There may be those who want to silence you or refuse to hear your perspective. Perhaps you are afraid to speak your truth. Take heart. As Brené Brown says:
“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor– the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences–good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage’.”
It takes courage to be authentic. It is so easy to stay disconnected from our emotions, afraid to listen to the messages they give us, to put on a happy face, constantly, to be afraid to buck the crowd or disturb the status quo. But the things that upset us are clues, really, to what needs fixing. They are data points that we can take in and consider what needs help–in ourselves, in our relationships, in the world. And tuning in to the full breadth of our emotions juxtaposed against our values can help us discover how we can make contributions in our society–to unmask wrongdoing, to stand up on behalf of the vulnerable, even to advocate on behalf of those society is only too willing to throw away. Authenticity helps us find our voices and the courage even when we are afraid to put on our work boots and start walking in the direction of positive social change.
Who are your heroes? It is really an enlightening exercise to sit for a minute and ponder this question. Are your heroes, perhaps, people who fought against injustice, spoke out when they could have remained silent, ran into danger to save others, had a vision for the world that transcended the accepted theories?
It tells us something of ourselves to consider our heroes and perhaps points a way to where we might use our voices or actions to better the world.
No matter who our heroes are, though, it is unlikely they acted fearlessly. It is far more likely that they understood the dangers, were afraid, but did it anyway because it was important.
What frightens you? Is it holding you back from trying new things, meeting new people, going new places? Fear is a crippler. Your mind is extremely good at playing worst case scenarios for you in the wee hours. Habit seems safe, so we stick to the same things, day in and day out.
But at what cost?
What is out there waiting to be discovered? Who is a friend you have yet to meet?
Sometimes we have to push against our fear, take the first step, even if it is just a baby step. And then keep walking. Keep exploring. Keep learning. Keep opening up to new people and new possibilities. The world is full of opportunities waiting to be experienced. You are capable of growing and blossoming and stretching.
What is worth fighting for? Sometimes a battle is won in a courageous show of strength and derring do. A fireman runs into a burning building to save a child. A passerby stops to help victims of an accident. A pilot steers a damaged plane to safety.
But sometimes the battle requires showing up time after time with love, kindness, and patience. Not giving up on someone. Having faith that love will win. Believing that relationships can be salvaged.