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: on time and labor

As another Labor Day passes, it is helpful to stop and take stock of why we pause, how we work, and why we rest. We Americans, in particular, derive a lot of value from our relationships to work. Our national mythology is wrapped up in the idea that hard work and an independent spirit are powerful enough to eliminate every other factor that might hinder our success. Our national origin story stems from the ongoing idea that we Americans are exceptional, that we are destined for glory because we determine to work at a thing until we achieve more than anyone thought possible. We pretend our work gives us control over time, and so we commit everything to work. This American Dream and our shared American stories merge to produce a red, white and blue baby who finds unlikely success because she works harder than everyone else, ignoring the deficits of her past and determined to keep moving forward, convinced that sacrificing her health now will secure her well-being down the road.

The commitment to ignore limitations as we find all value in productivity is uniquely American. Because we are convinced that our hard work will set us apart and reveal our worth, we are invested in our own upward trajectories. Time, for most of us, moves in a linear fashion, climbing upward we hope, but always moving forward. Rest then, unproductive as it is, is not valued. As a society we are invested in moving along, in facing the future, in improvement.

 Time doesn’t always behave within the constraints we give it though, does it? We work hard, committed to our own narratives of ascension, only to be rejected, forced to face the same failure or insecurity over and over again. We do all the right things, marching along the straight line we planned for ourselves, only to find that a career surprise, a struggle with mental or physical health, a tragedy, or a slower-than-expected relationship reality derails the benchmarks scheduled on our linear paths. We work to heal from a would in our past, only to find ourselves panting, hearts racing, as sweat runs down our back. Panic and anxiety defy time, forcing us to relive traumatic moments or to be stuck in our current one with no clear path forward.

In much of the global east and south, time is held differently than here in America. Instead of a linear path moving in a straight line from the past into the future, time’s nature is recognized as cyclical. Time moves along, and then doubles back; the future and past are inextricably linked, identities evolving and deconstructing simultaneously. America’s insistence on forward motion can offer hope that things need not stay as they are; however, the progress of time does not erase the lived experience of the past. Instead, notions of cyclical time have a way of making space for the past to coexist with the present. The all that you have seen and known and been is very present with the all that you currently experience. Cyclical time takes away the power of chronic productivity and control by acknowledging the mystery of time and the balance discovered through rest.

This weekend, my niece turned 7, and family and friends gathered to celebrate her joyful, resilient life. It was a wild celebration of loud fun, and we were mostly fully present and grateful for her birthday. We were simultaneously swimming in grief though, because every year of her life her big brother had a birthday the day after hers. Her birthday and his are inextricably linked together, but this year he is gone and his birthday marks a terrible absence. A cavernous longing. In the same 2 days we celebrate her life and possibilities in this very moment, while also reliving so many birthdays from years’ past. Time cycles on time so that we live both the present and the past, the joy and pain, together.

The holy scriptures of the Torah speak of a God who knows that time is both linear and cyclical. Time moves, but the present can’t be fully appreciated unless it is experienced in the context of the past. Throughout the record of God’s relationship to the Israelites, God often says, “Remember this moment when you caught a glimpse of who I am and of who you are. Build something in this spot so that you won’t forget. Tell your kids about our encounter as you go about your day. Carry this day with you because it will impact your experience of every future day.” God, in these scriptures, knows that time and memory are much bigger, much more mysterious, than a simple chronological line.

In this series on the disconnect between what we tend to say is true about our existence and how we live in our existence, we must notice that our dependence on hard work, on a better deal coming tomorrow, on time marching on, severely limits our ability to embrace the wonderful mystery of life. We don’t know—on any given day—if our best days are ahead or behind. We don’t know if the moments we now wish would end will be the same we soon long for. We do know that our experience of time is never as straightforward as we have been led to believe. Instead, time marches along and loops back on itself. At times we find ourselves released to be present today with little worry to yesterday or tomorrow, while at other times we find ourselves humbly thankful that the past can still feel incredibly close, shaping our now.

Today can be new, but it doesn’t mean yesterday can’t continue in beautiful ways within us. Watching my niece blow out her candles, I experienced joy in the miracle that we get to celebrate her life in the midst of such awful sadness. Infused throughout those moments was a palpable and shared deep grief that her brother was not standing next to her, his own cake next to hers. And yet. He was there. He was present in every single heart that wrestled to make space for the joy and the sadness. The present and the past. Creating room within our cyclical realities for work and rest is important if we hope to share each other’s stories and engage our present moments, pregnant as they are with the past.

Holding on to cyclical time in a country committed to linearity is labor, indeed.

an announcement

Two years ago I launched ExpandYourUs with the unwavering support of my family and the massive technical support of my sister. Since then I have written essays every week. Always prompted by the goings on in the world around us, sometimes they are thoughts on how we might better think about the way we live, or how we treat each other. Sometimes they are filled with outrage at how mean we can be to vulnerable others. Sometimes they attempt to contextualize our current moment with a retelling of histories often erased. Sometimes they are a lament, and other times they celebrate the good.

I have learned that each of you readers can surprise and delight me when you engage with this work. I have learned that it IS work to write and revise on a weekly deadline. I have learned that reading someone else’s thoughts every week can feel impossible, like getting through the New Yorker before the next one arrives! I have also learned that I am not invincible, and that sometimes I need to rest.

Therefore! On this two year anniversary of sorts, I’ve decided to publish an essay every other week, slowing my production significantly. I hope this will both improve the clarity and effectiveness of the writing, and that it will incentivize you to pause and read more often! I’m also working on a way to post an audio file each week, so you can listen to a ten minute reading of the essay as you go about your day. (Let me know if you are a tech wizard and have ideas!).

Since this feels like a juncture of sorts for me, I’ll also say that I’m so very grateful for the curiosity you have shown me as you allow me to help us think about the way we think about each other. I remain convinced that each of us are capable of living in ways that improves the lives of those around us. Indeed, each of us sacrifices for others all the time in beautiful ways. My hope is that we will simply expand our circles so that we care about more people, seeing them as our brothers and sisters. As I’ve grown fond of praying, “Expand my capacity to care about all of it. Help me never see a living soul and utter, ‘Not my problem.’ Everything matters. Amen.”