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.