our culture of blame

Last week my kids had a long Fall Break, and we had saved in order to go the beach with my sister’s family. We came into Saturday exhausted, needing rest and the stillness that comes when days are shared with people easy to love. Bikes strapped on our Suburban, we jumped on the road to head south from Nashville. Smooth sailing, we drove toward the week of rest we felt we deserved.

Until we stopped sailing all together, and basically parked on the interstate.

My phone—full of angrily texting friends—confirmed that traffic was horrible the whole way. Worse than ever before. Ridiculous. Unbelievable and maybe even unsurvivable. We thought their passion was a little much until we realized the mess lasted hundreds of miles. Visions of our perfect vacation vanished as we faced the seemingly real possibility that we would never get to the beach.

We went through the 5 stages of traffic grief:

Denial: Oh, this cannot be that bad. Traffic will pick up soon. We will still get there for dinner.

 

Anger: WHAT IN THE ACTUAL HELL IS HAPPENING?? Who are all these people and why on earth are they on MY interstate on a Saturday?

 

Bargaining: There has to be another way. Pull up Google maps. Pull up Waze. Ask Siri. CB a trucker. There has to be a new route to the location we go to all the time and know all the ways to…

 

Depression: This is the worst trip of my life. Why are we even going? Nothing can make this worth it.

 

Acceptance: The kids seem to be handling this better than we are. At least we aren’t using a AAA Triptik! We will get there, and we do have options. We should have realized that we aren’t the only people going south for Fall Break.

As we progressed through these stages, I decided it was everyone else’s fault that we were prevented from getting what we wanted. I blamed the other cars, the state of Alabama, the police, the road workers and any parent taking their child to the beach (myself excluded). We belonged on this road, and they did not. We had earned a vacation, and they had not. Our needs were more authentic than their needs.

This delusional and un-self-aware rant offered me a small sense of self-righteous comfort until I remembered our large and heavy-laden bike rack.

To everyone around us, we were the obnoxious folks who were congesting the states of Alabama and Florida. We had no right to be there, but were visiting tourists ruining the day of every local who saw our bike tires spinning. We were not victims of the problem. We were the problem. Our family and our car added the increased volume that now clogged the interstate. I could blame others all I wanted, but my bike rack served as a giant neon arrow, telling every other annoyed driver that it was our fault. 

We are hard wired to instinctively choose our side, to defend ourselves, to view our efforts sympathetically. These instincts keep us safe and defend our ground, but they also blind us to our faults. If unchecked, our need to advocate for ourselves leads us to blame or even attack others, seeing them as the problem, while we are innocent victims. When we are blind to our metaphorical bike racks, we cannot see the connections we share with others who are in the same boat. We cannot grieve together or work collaboratively if we spend our energy blaming others instead of recognizing the ways we have contributed to the breakdown of society.

Rather than blaming others for what a trainwreck our world/country/city/neighborhood has become, it is productive and helpful to examine our own behaviors and habits for how we contribute to the dysfunction we loathe. If I feel stuck in a world of selfish interests and ignorant ranting, I should take a look at my own words and actions before blaming “those people.”

 Most faith traditions create rituals around the need to confess our own shortcomings as we try to atone for our contribution to the blocking of shared flourishing. In Islam, the idea of ‘tawbah’ teaches adherents to repent of mistakes and to return to God. In the Judaic Torah, Yahweh instructs God’s people to repent of their sins by making sacrificial atonement. Indeed, we are in the midst of Judaism’s High Holy Days, which culminate with the ‘ten days of repentance’, a time set aside for the faithful to consider their actions and then seek forgiveness from anyone they have wronged. On Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, the ten days of reflection, confession and repentance are completed with the atonement as God forgives and accepts a person for the year ahead.

Jesus modeled this need to acknowledge the way our choices can hurt ourselves and others when he included confession in the prayer that taught his followers to pray. As a person who tries to embody the teaching of Jesus, I have to remind myself that the kind forgiveness of God invites me to take full responsibility for all the hurt I cause. When I refuse to do so, like so many of my peers, I cause problems while blaming others for the damage. If people of faith would make humble confession their starting point for each day (instead of self-righteous accusation), our society would come together on a foundation of compassionate inclusion. We would understand how our frustrations or fears connect us, tapping into the abundance found when success is shared instead of hoarded. 

The globe’s leading religions remind us that we are all capable of hurting others. (It is also helpful to note that we can cause trouble for ourselves and others without even recognizing our participation. Stuck in traffic, blaming everyone around me, I would not admit that I contribute to the problem.) The rituals embedded deeply in each of these religions remind us that unless we curate a habituated practice of reflection and confession, we will deny the impact of our actions. If we do not learn to admit the ways we contribute to our shared suffering, we will continue to stay in our misery, blaming everyone around us for our pain even as we withdraw from communities who share in our suffering.

Perhaps the world religions are on to something, and we should learn to acknowledge our own bike racks. Rather than assuming our actions are noble as we accuse others of slowing our success, we might strengthen a commitment to those around us by seeing our position for what it is: Like so many folks, we are exhausted, in need, and capable of blaming others for our discomfort even as we cause discomfort for others.

on paths of least resistance (and destruction)

On a recent hike through Montgomery Bell State Park, I was struck by the way the trail was carefully created to offer challenge followed by beauty. I have done this particular hike several times, once getting so lost that I thought I might become an unofficial and very smelly backcountry groundskeeper. Remembering that disorientation, I was keenly aware of my surroundings, and paid attention in a way that I normally don’t.

 Nashville had record-breaking rainfall this winter and spring. Although the Appalachian Mountains on Tennessee’s eastern border are famously home to generations of Scotsmen, middle Tennessee recently mirrored Scotland with months of gray rainy days. Walking though the woods, the evidence of the rain was everywhere. Soggy ground sprang under each step, and rivers’ voices were louder than normal as the water rushed past. Tracks of mud were evident as rivulets large and small formed during the most ardent downpours.

 Montgomery Bell’s trails are well cared for and defined, but now, because of the rain, there were huge gashes of mud and mulch that crossed the curated paths, at times making it difficult to find the way forward. Heavy rains gorged the earth, scarring thoughtfully laid paths with newly formed trenches that led nowhere. Walking along, it was easy to follow the path of least resistance, to go along with the rain until I realized that once again I had lost my way and wondered off the path and into a ditch.

 In my fifth decade, I am often struck by how difficult survival can be. Carefully choosing my steps, searching for the trail’s progress, I considered the many ways we move through life. The act of forward movement can feel impossible sometimes, especially when the best path is unclear. Particularly challenging is the choice to resist the instinct to function out of our most entrenched places. Sometimes it is hard to even recognize when a choice will take us into a ditch or elevate us to higher ground. Like pouring rain that falls, carving deep ravines across a more thoughtfully laid trail, our worst instincts tempt us to leave the best route and instead follow a path leading to our own destruction.

Consider the way we engage with difference. We know by now that we cannot talk with people who come from different walks of life without first recognizing our own bias, remembering that our experiences shape us in meaningful ways, that these experiences are incredibly different, and that in order to walk toward others we should expect to hear new ideas and different perspectives. When we enter into these conversations, it is rather easy to wonder off the curated path, stepping unknowingly onto the rugged path cut through the earth from the many downpours that came before. We say we want to learn something new, but then we hear a different experience, we react badly, and we end up in a ditch, often without even realizing we stepped away from the path created for our own good.

 We feel skeptical when another’s experience seems to challenge our understanding of how the world works, and we step into the ditch.

We feel attacked by the hard reality someone else lives, and we step into the ditch.

We feel exhausted by the effort it takes to keep moving forward in awkward conversations, and we step into the ditch.

We feel defensive when we hear the unfamiliar perspective of another, and we step into the ditch.

We feel confused and alienated when we perceive that “normal” for others is wildly unfamiliar for us, and we step into the ditch.

Like accumulating water, gathering into franticly formed streams, we look for the path of least resistance. As spontaneously formed rivers cut a new path that leads nowhere, the meaningful path becomes harder to discern, until one day it is hard to see at all. Our interactions are like that. The more we follow our instincts, defensive and touchy, easily offended and looking for a way to escape the discomfort that comes with reaching across lines of difference, the more we find ourselves on the unstable ground of recently moved earth. We look up to see we are in a ravine—with like minded others—trapped in a dead end and far from a path made for many feet.

When we follow our worst instincts, we lose our bearings, and eventually, our hope, finding ourselves in a muddy ditch rather than on a path toward a clearing where we can share ideas and form a society with room for all. However, when we keep our footing and avoid the destructive streams rushing by, we quickly recognize that engaging with others who experience the world differently inspires our own curiosity, increasing our capacity for mystery, humility and wonder. It becomes obvious that the carefully laid path is the one that leads to wonder, to curiosity, to walking with another person who stands in their own shoes and interacts with the world differently than you do.

Walking on the shared path is difficult, and requires a deep focus on context, on orienting ourselves to our surroundings. It requires us to step over small currents that can sweep us away, to maintain our bearings, to choose our steps—and words—wisely. It requires skill that can be honed and strengthened. We can get better at this! It begins with a commitment to notice the rivulets, to observe how they end, and to choose instead to keep walking on the path toward a clearing.

How easily we stumble onto the path of least resistance, haphazardly created by a downpour.  The rains will keep coming, and the way forward will continue to be obscured by destructive habits. A better way is to slowly walk the trail meant to take us through challenging terrain with others, but ultimately, toward beauty.

a leaf buckled concrete: paths of hope

Every time I spot a weed growing up through concrete, I think, “Good for you.” I can’t help myself. I am biased toward underdogs, toward wildness, toward bucking the system. One of my many faults. While I would not say that I have a pro-weed orientation in life, I prefer the natural world to concrete in nearly every instance. That stubborn little weed reminds me that persistence is a superpower.

 In faith-driven, Biblically rooted justice work, the inequity I hope to expose and reform is massive. I often teach about the systems and norms that created our unjust status quo to folks whose life experiences have sheltered them from interacting with such unpleasant realities. Getting people in the room is a battle in and of itself, but after that I have come to recognize two distinct blocks. The first is visceral defensiveness. The second is perceived powerlessness.

 To learn of such atrocious injustice as an adult who has actively benefitted from and propped up systems in the name of Jesus, patriotism or justice, can be disorienting. Such a shock, in fact, that it is easy to deny this history exists, or to shake one’s head, disbelieving. At the very least, most want to claim innocence: “I’ve never oppressed anyone! I don’t even know people getting hurt by this so-called injustice!”

 Encountering such obvious disparity, people often feel shamed, guilty, or accused…all of which lead to defensiveness. Defensiveness destroys relationships and short circuits curious impulses. We are not capable of learning from others when we are busy defending our own action (or inaction). We cannot think of solutions when we refuse any responsibility or even connection to the problems being addressed. Because I have learned to anticipate such defensiveness, I now name it as the enemy of the good in the very moment in which it occurs. Feeling defensive or attacked is not a reason to walk away. When I name the creeping posture of defense, people usually look up, exposed, but also interested in any available alternative. I encourage folks to notice their defensiveness, commit to investigate it later, and then lean in to the conversation at hand. I ask them to seek to understand before they decide who is to blame (or if they even agree).

The other block many must overcome in these moments is the completely overwhelming—I-had-no-idea—shock of seeing the reality of injustice in our systems. When folks learn to avoid defensiveness, staying invested long enough to learn about the realities others face, they often feel crushing grief. Overwhelmed at the power and longevity of injustice, they instinctively see their own powerlessness to change anything. “I hear you. I’m with you. But what am I supposed to do?! How on earth can I do anything to actually help?” While this reaction can keep relationships alive, it can lead to the same sense of paralysis that results from defensiveness. In either case, injustice remains, with no resistance from well-meaning folks who enjoy the privileges of living in the majority.

I think this is why I love that little weed. Whoever designed and laid that sidewalk probably did everything right. They scorched the earth, leveled the ground, and poured one of the strongest substances known to man on top of it. And yet. Despite all odds, that little spunky weed grew. A leaf buckled concrete. It’s a Christmas miracle! Or maybe a gardening nightmare? Either way it gives me hope that a living thing made to find the light, with enough time and determination, can crack through a system made to permanently block its ability to grow. Go weeds go!

In parenting and educational circles, grit is a new buzzword. We have long recognized the difference in natural ability and growth. Some kids achieve because they are naturally gifted to do so, while others have deficits they learn to overcome through determination, delayed gratification and belief in their abilities. These kids develop growth mindsets, to borrow from Carol Dweck, and they learn to face obstacles that seem insurmountable one step at a time. Yes, failure is likely from their starting position. But taken in small steps, small victories add up until they accomplish their goals, achieving well beyond their initial trajectories.

As a parent of teens and a tween, I now realize I would rather send a kid into the world who has grit, who has learned to slowly overcome odds, than I would a kid who has easily achieved most accomplishments. This is not to say I am against easy achievements. By all means, knock it out of the park, especially if it comes easily! Adulting, though, is hard. Losing a job, working under a mean boss, caring for sick kids or parents, having a marriage fall apart, or suffering in economic distress all require a long term commitment to stay the course and learn the new skills required for the task ahead, even if it feels impossible. Grit, it turns out, wins the day.

Here in Nashville, succulents are all the rage, and frankly, I’m uninterested. Give me a rainforest over a desert any day of the week. I know they conserve water, but I live in Tennessee instead of Arizona for a reason. I like vibrant colors, gorgeous blooms, and diversity that makes the eye hungry to take it all in. People I love who know about plants love them though, so I finally got a succulent or two. Damned if I haven’t grown partial to these little miracle growers. They are stubborn sons of bitches, and just like my beloved urban weed warriors, they stay alive. They keep growing, even in shameful neglect. I think we could all do well to take a page out of the succulent handbook. Dig deep, determine to grow, and create beauty in the worst of circumstances. Come to the table, pay attention and decide to change your part of the world. Together, let’s see just see how many cracks we can make in the system until there is room for all of us to grow.