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.

aim higher: the dangers of our gaze

Comparison is the thief of joy, or so I’ve been told. It is certainly difficult to access your own sense of contented belonging if your gaze is always on another. The dangers of Instagram’s self-paparazzi have been well documented. We are all overlooked or left out at times; indeed, social media is both performance art and the gateway to chronic FOMO-syndrome.  No matter how fabulous your weekend was, one glance at Insta will confirm that a fun thing occurred in your universe without you.

These are rough times for a person who believes we were made to serve and delight in creation and the created ones who inhabit it. Stalking the lives of others diminishes the pleasure we take in our own lives. The choices you make seem lackluster when viewed in light of the choice you weren’t given. The problem, it seems to me, is that looking at others invites us to assess how we measure up. Does your fun life expose the blah elements of mine? Does your exciting life expose the boring nature of mine? Does your crowded life expose the loneliness of mine? Our focus on others often leads us to find our own lives wanting, as we realize we fail to measure up. 

It is equally dangerous to gaze at others in a way that assures us that we are more fabulous than anyone around us. Comparison can leave us dissatisfied, but it can also make us self-satisfied. If we give in to our most critical natures, we can weaponize our gaze at others, finding them lacking in every way. This approach allows us to feel great about ourselves, knowing we must belong because we are better than all those other people.

The point, I suppose, is this: When our eyes are trained on others, we find ourselves either diminished or inflated, either in despair or enjoying self-righteous power. Surely focusing on the projected images of others leads to a troubled understanding of self.

On the other hand, I would argue that it is equally difficult to experience joy and freedom if one’s gaze is focused inward. We live in an age in which self-awareness is promoted as a pathway to good health. We are told that to live well with others, we first have to examine and understand ourselves. Self-awareness will lead to healthy boundaries, to self-actualization and to intentional action, right? Sometimes, but not every time.

We know that comparing ourselves to others will not lead us to joy, but we often believe that focusing on self will do the trick. I don’t buy this idea, although I do think we tend to hurt ourselves and others when we have not done the work to know and understand our instincts and biases. The secret is in the approach and the purpose. Instead of examining our biases so that we can serve and enjoy others, we often pursue the magical unicorn of self-care simply for satisfaction. We might engage in long term counseling whose purpose is apparently to make us articulate and self-possessed selfish people. We might learn to focus our gaze inward, eventually believing that everything would be better if we learned to speak our minds and only do the things we want to do. Self-awareness IS indeed important, but it is also a very close neighbor to self-absorption.

How can we be self-aware without becoming self-obsessed? One of the keys is to realize that contrary to popular belief, joy and freedom come neither from measuring up to others nor from focusing only on oneself. Self-awareness is crucial if we hope to live well with others, but self-awareness and agency are not the goals of existence.

It is easy to idealize knowing and loving oneself; indeed, this is a lovely idea until it becomes the end that justifies everything. When love of self loses context, it gets out into the world and destroys communities. My teenagers are sometimes in foul moods, and the core of their grumpiness seems to be rooted in the fact that they have to do junk they don’t want to do. They feel like it is wildly unfair that they would ever have to do anything they didn’t suggest. We tell our kids, “too bad. The world doesn’t revolve around you. This is what it means to be in a family,” or other such truths. Do we live by our own standards though? Well-versed in self-examination, do we begin to believe that joy and freedom are ours for the taking if we can only learn to look inward enough to know what we want, speak it into the world, and then take action to get it? Joy and freedom do not magically appear when we become articulate selfish people.

On the contrary, we live best with others when we live for others to some extent.

As a person who finds independence intoxicating—tempting me to ignore the fact that I was created to thrive with and among others—I know the human condition is best survived together. We cannot find our way by gazing only inwardly or even at others as threats or as #lifegoals. Instead, we live best when we understand how we belong to those around us. Not how we measure up, but how we fit together. The next time life feels lackluster or disappointing, avoid the pitfalls of looking only inward or outward for proof of life. Instead, do the work and take the time to know yourself, your bias, your community and your purpose. Then move toward others, celebrating and improving the communities we share.

aim higher: jack sparrow as a life coach

For the last few months I have been thinking about the gaps between who we hope to be and who we prove to be. To be human is to be hypocritical, so there is a sense in which we could all shrug our shoulders, shake our heads, and say, “guilty, yes…whatever.” And yet. Surely we aren’t willing to settle for such laziness, such defeat. If we are to aim higher, we need to muster a little more concern for how our actions align with our stated values. If anything matters, then everything matters.

In the original Pirates of the Caribbean, a young and painfully brave Will Turner (played by Orlando Bloom), finds himself aiding and abetting a pirate (Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp). Turner finds this despicable, even though he certainly tried to resist the coercion at every turn. Nevertheless and despite his conviction, Turner finds himself in a position he does not think he can live with: He is, in fact, the right hand man of a pirate. He loathes pirates, but here he is.

It is in this critical moment that Jack Sparrow reveals to Turner that he is also, in fact, the son of a pirate. Will Turner’s father was called Bootstrap Bill, and, according to Sparrow, was, “A good man. A great Pirate.” Turner simply cannot accept this idea. His entire being is invested in his rejection of pirate codes and the like. Foolishly, rather than face the truth about his own heritage, he pulls a sword on the Captain. 

Swiftly knocked off his feet by his brilliant would-be victim, Turner finds himself dangling off a sail mast (maybe? I have far exceeded my knowledge of pirate and sailing-adjacent trivia, and heretofore will make up names in order to get through this story), hanging precariously over the ocean below. It is then that Sparrow offers this savvy advice:

“Now as long as you’re just hanging there, pay attention. The only rules that really matter are these: What a man can do, and what a man can’t do. For instance, you can either accept that your father was a pirate AND a good man, or you can’t. But pirate is in your blood boy, so you’ll have to square with that one day.”

Sparrow speaks as a man unwilling to surrender to his own unexamined hypocrisy. He knows the paralysis that comes when a person claims to be one thing but lives as another. He knows that Turner can try to outrun the conflicting identities of his past, but he also knows that eventually, he will have to face them.

We all need a moment where we come face to face with the wisdom of Captain Jack Sparrow. Rather than live as if our hypocrisies are not as egregious as their hypocrisies, why don’t we change our patterns? Each of us is a compilation of the patterns that reveal our priorities. Its true that most of us think our values determine our habits, but for the majority it works the other way round. Our patterns, our habits, our unacknowledged liturgies and rituals—these are the things that reveal who we are and what we care about.

If we want to avoid being diminished by our unacknowledged hypocrisies, we might consider beginning a new pattern of observation. When we begin a daily practice of observing our own behaviors without judgment, we equip ourselves to notice the places where our behaviors and beliefs are out of alignment. Paying attention to ourselves—the way we approach others, not just our own desires and needs—is hard work. It can be exhausting, but the practice of attentive observation allows us to see the gaps between who we hope to be and who we prove to be.

When confronted with our hypocrisies, many of us experience a vague sense of shame. Living under shame is soul-crushing, made even worse when we refuse to look into the source of the shame or to explore possible pathways out of it. Still, many of us stew in this broth of awful. We are neither free enough to align our actions with who we hope to be nor miserable enough to change our daily patterns. Instead, we complain about the toxic state of politics while we disparage acquaintances who disagree with us. We lament the lack of civic engagement while we forget to vote. We decry lackluster work ethics while we bail our kids out of consequences. We worry about the environment while driving giant gas guzzlers in 5 mile loops around our temp-regulated houses. We shake our heads at sex trafficking while we dabble in porn. We roll our eyes at trophies for every kid while we chronically celebrate our dazzlingly exceptional children. We long for meaningful community while we ignore our neighbors. We vilify the fracturing impact of technology while becoming increasingly addicted to its perks.

If we want to aim higher then we must answer Sparrow’s challenge: What can we do and what can’t we do? When observing the world, it is sometimes tempting to either commit to radical change or to completely shut down, convinced nothing can be done to improve. Rather than start a non-profit or move off the grid, I suggest a milder, and much more impactful approach: Have a conversation with yourself about what you can do and what you can’t do.

Do what you can.

Stop living as you can’t.

Everything matters.  

Will we be brave enough to observe our own hypocrisies? Will we commit to paying attention so our actions support the things we value? Or will we continue to dangle out over the ocean, thrown off balance because we refuse to notice the truth of how we live, unaware of the choice before us?