Opinion. Ask Forgiveness not Permission by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. Ask Forgiveness not Permission by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. Ask Forgiveness not Permission by Hal O’Leary. Think about this interesting article in the weekly section Just Hal on Yareah.


Chain. Photo by George Hodan

The saying, “Ask for forgiveness, not permission” is, at the least, troublesome.  To assume that it should be universally applied in all situations, with no consideration for the party from whom permission is being asked, might prove most unpleasant.  A micro-managing boss, an overly protective parent, or a strongly disciplined army sergeant may not be impressed with initiative should the proposed venture prove to be successful, nor with the concept of forgiveness should it fail.  On the other hand, with more enlightened superiors, initiative is not only desirable but expected, and forgiveness will likely be forthcoming in the event of failure.  Therefore, it behooves one to understand what directives might exist before deciding between forgiveness or permission, but I would suggest that there may be a bit more at stake here than merely the consequences of a decision to ask or not to ask permission, important as they may be.

Now, having clarified the obvious, it seems to me that the question to be asked is not so much what the consequences of the decision to ask or not to ask permission might be as to success or failure of a venture undertaken,  but what the consequences might be in terms of the self. While there are few who might be more aware of the nasty traits of narcissism than myself, I fear I must admit to just a touch of it in respect to how it affects my sense of self-assurance. A lack of faith in oneself must inevitably lead to an avoidance of risk for fear of failure.  The limitations this avoidance must place on the ability to fully experience life should be obvious to all. To act is to live with purpose; not to act is to exist without meaning. We do not take meaning from life; we assign meaning to life. There is a great line from Robert Frost’s poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” in which the farmer’s wife speaks of the hired hand as having “nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope.” This line precisely describes a life wasted, a life without meaning, a fear of failure that haunts us all. Only the most courageous escape it. I’ve often advised the young as to how they can be assured that they will never err or fail.  My facetious advice:  “Don’t do it.”

I recall an experience that I think makes my point. The arts institute for whom I worked for more than forty years as artistic director of its theatre also had a museum. The director of the museum complained incessantly that our executive director would never give him permission to execute whatever activity he might suggest. When I finally advised him that it was his own fault, he was taken aback and asked how he could be at fault.  In response, I had to ask him why he felt it necessary to ask permission with an anticipation of the customary refusal.  At a loss for an option, he asked what else he could do. “Just do it,” I said, “then tell him what you’ve done,” to which I added, “If I were in his position, I would refuse you as well.”  I then relayed an experience in which the Fire Safety Inspector insisted that I sacrifice a less than adequate wing space of the stage in our theatre for a fire escape. After studying the situation, I proposed to the inspector that I could put in a stairway in front of and to the side of the stage, which would lead from our second floor theatre to a window on the first floor which would then be converted into an exterior door. He agreed to accept my proposal.  Knowing that the executive director would have refused permission for doing something that would mean getting a contractor, I did it myself. On completion, the only consequence was that no mention of the matter ever made.

It was then that it occurred to me that had I asked his permission, what I would have actually been asking would have been for him to accept, or at least share, the responsibility for any unfavorable consequence, and that any credit I might claim would have been equally minimized.  I actually believe, though he would never have admitted it, that our less than adventurous director was grateful for the relief of responsibility.   As for myself, I reveled in the accomplishment–a sense of achievement and gratification the museum director would never know. I really had no right to pass the onus for such a risky venture to someone else. To summarize, let me add:


I’d recommend you never ask permission,

If you would be a man without restriction.

To do so must amount to an admission

That possibly you’re lacking in ambition.

Because I have a very strong suspicion,

So strong, I think it might be premonition,

You have but little faith in intuition,

For really what you do with this petition

Is to shift the onus for your expedition

To someone else, but with this precondition:

A failure would be theirs by definition.

But for yourself with such a proposition

Success for you would be by definition

Perhaps no more than just a supposition.

If you would be a man without restriction

I’d recommend you never ask permission.

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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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