Blame Is Useless
“I hate the person who invented Mondays.”
I saw that phrase on someone’s Facebook status a week or two ago, and it made me smile. It’s definitely an understandable sentiment. I remember miserable grade-school mornings, being dragged out of bed by my mom. All I could do was grumble bitterly, “I hate the person who invented school!”
And I really did. I could almost picture this person: a crusty, stern Englishman with thick glasses and a white mustache, rapping a stick on the chalkboard. What a nasty thing to do to me, to invent school. I hated him.
At least, I hated him during those moments when I was being dragged out of bed and shuffled off to school. In fact, I’m sure there were times when I realized that there probably wasn’t one person out there in history who was solely responsible for inventing school and spoiling my mornings. But at that moment at 7:30 a.m. when I was yanked out of my pleasant dreams, he was ruining my life.
That was my pathetic defense against a part of reality I didn’t like. Blame.
What I like about that phrase, “I hate the person who invented Mondays,” is that it reveals the absurdity of one of our very human habits. We have a tendency to find some part of our environment to scold — a person or thing — whenever we run into some kind of problem in our lives. Something unpleasant happens unexpectedly, and the emotion of blame arises. We search for a source to our suffering, and fix our dislike on it and align ourselves against it, as if our sheer, bitter ill-will can transmute a part of life we hate into something we like.
So often the target we settle on doesn’t even make sense. Have you ever cursed a stair after stubbing your toe on it, or the wind for messing up your hair? I have.
Just as often we are a little more clever than that. We identify a person that is somehow behind our suffering, and suddenly our displeasure has some momentum.
“This is so boring. Heather always makes me go to these awful family get-togethers.”
“The electric bill! $110 this time! Those greedy bastards! Surely it doesn’t cost them this much to generate the power. They’re ripping me off.”
“God, why can’t these panhandlers just let me walk down the street without making me feel so guilty?”
When we find ourselves in an undesirable situation, we tend to settle on people as the source of the misery because we know that people are capable of being responsible for what they’ve done. Since we know they are thinking, free-willed creatures, we can deem them to be the sole reason for this latest misery of ours, whereas stairs and breezes cannot be expected to assume responsibility for anything they do to us. With inanimate objects it’s just us and our tough luck, and we know it. Usually.
Why We Blame
Blame is a defense mechanism. What we’re defending ourselves from is our own responsibility for dealing with the unpleasant experience we’ve been given. To indulge in blame is to forfeit that responsibility and delegate it mentally to someone else, thereby convincing ourselves that we are not responsible for the state of our lives, because it was some outside influence that made it the way it is.
The benefit in blame is that it allows us to avoid feeling like we’re failing ourselves, that we lack the strength and maturity to come to terms with the reality of unfairness or bad luck. We can feel safe in pretending that our distress is not evidence of an inadequacy in ourselves, but of one in someone else. Of course.
This benefit is a dubious one: it amounts to nothing more than another one of the dozens of self-deceptions we engage in daily in order to protect our tender egos.
It sounds silly, but humans are very good at lying to themselves. We are entirely capable of making ourselves believe that our conduct leaves nothing to be improved here, and therefore we have no further responsibilities in this situation. How convenient! Yet in so doing we remain miserable and powerless over the outcome.
The Blame Reflex
Quite often when I’m driving down a familiar road, I come up on a stretch with unusually heavy traffic. As if on cue, my eyes narrow and immediately travel up the line of cars to find the moron who’s driving too slow, or stopped where they shouldn’t be. “Ah, so it’s you, blue Malibu! I knew it was someone.”
It’s such a compulsive reaction, it makes me laugh when I notice I’m doing it. I just need to find out who to blame for my (admittedly minor) frustration. Couldn’t I just wait for the cars to start moving again? That’s what I’ve got to do anyway, whether I know the reason for the delay or not.
What’s really happening is this simple, stupid thought pattern: I run into something I don’t like in life, and I want to blame someone for it so that my misery is no longer my fault, even though my blameful thoughts improve nothing. Sometimes I do find somebody driving absurdly slowly, or someone else who is clearly at fault, but just as often there’s no clear culprit, and somehow that feels worse.
If you look for it you may find that same dynamic happening a lot in your life. I sure do.
In situations like that, I’m just having a little internal tantrum about not getting my way or not getting what I expect, and I comfort myself with a self-righteous internal rant about how I would never do such a thing, the implication being that I am clearly superior to the culprit, if only in the realm of traffic etiquette.
The Right Time for Blame?
You may be thinking that there are indeed situations when blame is wholly appropriate — when a human being is clearly at fault and should be the one responsible for the misery they’ve created. Assigning responsibility to others is sometimes possible, but blame itself doesn’t need to be a part of it. And it’s better if it isn’t, for a few reasons.
Firstly, when we blame, most often we are attempting to delegate responsibility to somebody who isn’t willing to accept it.
Someone dumps a beer on your pants at the football game. He says “Sorry” and shrugs, but doesn’t offer to pay for dry cleaning or even hunt for napkins. You believe he is responsible for remedying the situation, yet he’s obviously unwilling.
What are you going to do? Fight him? Sue him? Just sit and hate him? There may be some avenue of force you can apply in order to make someone else responsible for an undesirable detail of your moment (nobody likes beer-pants) but most often, trying to enforce responsibility on others is not practical and will not improve your situation. The smartest course of action may just be to sit and let it slowly dry in the sun, and relinquish any resentment you have so you can enjoy the game the best you can, given your new circumstance.
In the news, there are examples abound of refusal to take responsibility for one’s own misfortune, particularly in the litigious United States. The woman who sued McDonalds for burning herself with their coffee is the classic example. The judge who sued his dry cleaner for $54 million for ruining his favorite pants is another.
Secondly, causes and effects are never conveniently cut and dried. Suffering is a chain reaction. Pinpointing one single person as the ultimate cause of a particular problem (of yours) is a little nearsighted to say the least. What caused the cause? Inquire into the past of anyone who makes a habit of hurting others — whether through cruelty or mere thoughtlessness — and you will invariably find that in their past they have been the victim of equally senseless and undeserved bad fortune.
Do you get mad at the 11-year old who tagged your garage door, or his parents? Or their parents? Maybe it’s the economy. So that would mean Bush is to blame. Or is it Obama now?
One mean or careless act is never itself the origin of suffering, it’s just the latest iteration of a very predictable cycle. Misery always has parents. And parents always have parents.
And thirdly, blame masquerades as something helpful, as if merely identifying a conceivable cause of a problem is the same as solving it. Often there is action that can be taken that will improve the situation, but just as often there is little that can be done, and blame serves as a release valve for the unwanted pressure of having to accept what has happened.
Culture backs up the notion that blame is an end. “Solving a murder” is a rather ridiculous phrase for merely catching and punishing the person who did it. Murder is irreversible and cannot be solved.
Blame is an Emotion
Certainly there are situations where it is useful (and possible) to identify the person who should have been responsible for some debacle or disaster. It serves us all if the careless engineer who built an unstable bridge is found out and fired, or if a violent criminal is apprehended and tried. There are situations where we can indeed apply force — physical, political, or financial — to make an offender accountable for misery they’ve created, or at least prevent them from creating more in the same way.
Yet blame itself — a word that derives from “blaspheme,” to abhor or revile — is not at all necessary in order to identify those who should be responsible, or to apply force to make them so. Blame is an emotion: a self-righteous, self-acquitting, but futile will for our personal reality to be different than it is.
It is a sense of anything but responsibility. It is the absurd act rejecting the reality we’ve been given and charging an unwilling and perhaps unwitting party with improving it, even if that party is an inanimate object, like your staircase.
So blame, such as it is the emotional desire for others to take responsibility, isn’t terribly useful. Enforcing responsibility (such as with the legal system, or discipline in the workplace) may be useful when it is possible, but why taint that process by indulging in negative emotions or value judgments, which only compound the suffering for everyone?
The only sensible concerns here are a) determining who will improve the situation from its current, undesirable state, b) determining how to prevent this from happening again, and c) not being miserable throughout the whole ordeal. Blame creates a thick bias that gets in the way of all of these.
Most disturbingly, it serves to give the blamer the false assurance that he could never do what the target of his blame did, and therefore the target is a lesser being, or a different animal altogether. Such self-importance is at the center of all instances of racism, genocide and war, not to mention the little personal squabbles that suck the joy from our lives to no end.
In most cases, there is no practical way to enforce responsibility, and so the responsibility for the dent in your car door, your late arrival at work, your stubbed toe, and your stolen bike, must all fall on you, the “victim.” Some people hate the thought of a victim of any kind taking responsibility for what has happened to them. Yet there is no other power a victim has.
I mean, you can always try to pass the buck. You can hotly demand a refund, you can confront someone for stealing your bike (and get the wrong person like I once did), you can even tell yourself the stairs were built funny, and take whatever scraps of comfort that kind of behavior earns you, but it won’t yield happiness.
As far as I’m concerned, that is life’s ultimate skill: taking responsibility for what happens to us, regardless of who we might think caused it. When blame enters the picture, so does a staunch rejection of reality itself — whatever it is in that moment — which is the very definition of suffering.
Maybe the importance of that point isn’t clear enough. The Holy Grail of life — the solution to all problems, the raison d’etre for all spiritual traditions, enlightenment itself — is exactly that: the ability to accept life as it is in the present moment, with the same openness as if you had chosen it. We’re talking about developing power over suffering, and ultimately seeing an end to it. This is the tremendous power that blame undermines.
The Red Flag
We can do better than to indulge in the self-serving high that we get from blame. It is such a deep, animal impulse that we must make a habit of being vigilant, and practicing nonreaction.
How? At the first sign of disdain in the mind, tell yourself to hang on for a second, before the teeth clench, before eyes harden. Say to yourself something like “OK, of course I feel resentment here, of course I want someone else to be responsible for this. It’s only human. But it is not realistic.” Remind yourself that you already are where you are, regardless of who put you there, and that the quality of your experience is up to you, even if the form of your experience isn’t. Remember truth #11, even if you reject the other 87: “Every problem you have is your responsibility, regardless of who caused it.”
Blame is a big red flag. As soon as you detect its conspicuous stench in your mind, you know that you have become unwilling to take responsibility for the situation you find yourself in. That bears repeating: when you detect blame in your mind, you know you are refusing to take responsibility for your life at this moment.
Of course there are times when it feels like somebody else is genuinely responsible for the trouble you’re dealing with. The person who finished the ice cubes and didn’t refill the tray is responsible for the fact that you have no ice now. The friend who broke your ipod is responsible for your no longer having an ipod.
This is just another “should” trap (now there’s a red flag for you: “should”) — it’s not really true. Chances are extremely good the “guilty” party won’t take responsibility for this latest unpleasant development in your life, and if their responsibility is to be enforced somehow, guess who’s responsible for enforcing it? You. Always, always you.
This is good, though. Responsibility is scary. Humans are known to avoid it. It requires a sobering confrontation with the truth of what our life really consists of right now, which may indeed be pain and difficulty. But responsibility is power, and if you assume that responsibility, you thereby assume that much more power over your experience. If you can assume full responsiblity (which monks and other seekers devote their lives trying to achieve) then you can assume full power over the quality of your experience in life. Imagine.
With blame, the unspoken belief is this:
“I am suffering because of him. Therefore he’s responsible for my suffering, not me.”
That second sentence is the fallacy that keeps us coming back to blame. We like the idea that our misery is not our fault. But technically, it always is. The pain and inconvenience we encounter in life are not always our fault, but suffering is.
Don’t confuse “fault” with “reason for blame.” Society has mangled the word “fault” by confusing it with blame and contempt. A “fault” is merely an inadequacy or inefficiency of some kind. We are not to blame for having faults! But it is solely our responsibility to fix them. There is always room for improvement in our ability to accept reality.
So today, what about taking responsibility for everything that happens to you, not just for everything you do?
Yes, that means taking responsibility for the results of others’ actions on your life. So unfair! Yet it is so completely preferable to waiting for the world to deliver what you think is fair.
Have a good Monday.
A | A | A
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