Blame is Useless

blame

“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 7:30am 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, and 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 eleven-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.

R

Photo by !anaughty!



John November 23, 2009 at 9:27 am

Phenomenal post, David. Lately, I have been placing the blame on others instead of taking responsibility for everything that’s been happening to me. I felt like the world had dealt me a bad hand. I realize I have the power to control my future, but often times have lost sight of the smaller, more recent instances of inconvenience. It’s just really hard to accept responsibility when it’s so much more simple to blame another.

I see now that everything that happens to me is my responsibility to fix. I can’t just blame others anymore. I have to take everything that happens in my life into my own hands. If I give my life’s responsibilities to someone (or something) else, how can I ever hope to steer my life in the direction I want it to go?

Great post, David. Glad you’re having a blast on your trip! (I really should catch up this weekend on the Kiwi blog.)

Safe travels, man.
.-= John´s last blog ..When You Get Inspired, Act On It Before It’s Too Late =-.

David November 23, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Hi John. That’s right, it’s not just the big things. I’ve become a lot better at bucking up and taking responsibility for big developments, but the little things (like backed up traffic, or just busy sidewalks) still send me into little fits of blame sometimes. And there are so many more little things than big things.

Srinivas Rao November 23, 2009 at 10:08 am

David,

Thanks for sharing this. I’ve spent a large portion of my life blaming other people for how things turned out. But, in the last year I’ve taken much more responsibility and been willing to admit when I’ve screwed up and realized I ultimately can control how life turns out and how I react to things that turn out the way I want.

@John: I was where you are at now about 10 years ago, in college. I think you are going to find that you will be wise beyond your years at the rate you are going on this journey.
.-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..IBS, ADHD, and Uphill Career Battles =-.

David November 23, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Hi Srinivas. Haha I agree, John is already wise beyond his years. I was still getting worse at life at his age. Bottomed out at 23, I like to think.

Positively Present November 23, 2009 at 2:06 pm

FANTASTIC post! Blame really IS useless and as I get older I’m really starting to realize that. I really enjoyed the way you wrote about this topic. Tweeting this one for sure! :)
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..the benefits of having a grateful day =-.

David November 23, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Thanks Dani. Appreciate the tweet!

Patty - Why Not Start Now? November 23, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Hi David – Wow, lots here to ponder. I like how you link blame to victimization, and identify responsibility as the way out. One thing I’ve learned is that blame and judgment are close cousins, and if I’m blaming or judging others, then it’s much more likely I will turn it on myself as well. I mean, if I’m going to blame the person who spilled beer on my pants, then I also have to blame myself when I dumped the container of vinaigrette on my lap. And then it becomes a repeating story, ripe with anger and frustration. In the end it does quite a number on self esteem. Thanks.
.-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..The House of Belonging =-.

David November 23, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Hi Patty, always good to hear from you. I totally agree. Blame is just as often directed at ourselves, where it is certainly not helpful, especially when it comes to self-esteem.

Avi November 23, 2009 at 11:48 pm

David, have you considered publishing a book of Raptitude essays?
.-= Avi´s last blog ..T 11/24/09 Comic =-.

David November 24, 2009 at 5:10 am

Sometime over the coming year I’ll publish an e-book containing my favorite pieces and some new ones.

A print book of any kind is definitely a few years down the road.

Walter November 24, 2009 at 4:20 am

A very simple truth: Blame is useless. Yet many have burdened themselves by catering this negative habit of the mind. Although it is understandable the difficulty to handle this emotion, few tried to examine its nature. You have examined it here very well David and I agree that we should inhibit its control on our being.

Whatever is useless, let us cast it out of our minds. :-)

David November 24, 2009 at 5:11 am

It’s almost like humans come pre-burdened with it. We’re complicated animals, and IMO being happy is all about learning what kind of animals we are. We tend to blame just like we tend to eat and sleep. :)

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) November 24, 2009 at 5:59 am

When my sisters argue with me I often need to thank them for giving me such Power~ so much is my fault ~:-) it’s like being a goddess~ always to blame for something…

David~ laying blame serves a very important function for many people~ it allows them to cope. processes to channel feelings of fault that they have carried with themselves for eons is their choice for survival.

How to replace such a phenon with something of equal value..?

“…as if [I] had chosen it”…? of course I chose it -!
.-= Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor)´s last blog ..Forums =-.

David November 28, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Yes you are right. I’m not so sure it is a healthy way to cope. The word “coping” is thrown around as if anything you can do to ease unpleasant feelings is worthwhile. Some people cope by abusing alcohol, or other people.
.-= David´s last blog ..Goodbye Thailand, I Miss You Already =-.

Mark Foo | 77SuccessTraits.com November 24, 2009 at 11:18 pm

Excellent piece, David! Wayne Dyer has said, “All blame is a waste of time. No matter how much fault you find with another, and regardless of how much you blame him, it will not change you.” There is only one person responsible for the quality of your life. And that person is ‘YOU’.

And here’s what Jim Rohn said about taking responsibility for your life, “You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons, or the wind, but you can change yourself.”

Cheers~

Mark

David November 28, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Thanks Mark. Wayne Dyer has a good head on his shoulders.

Gerlaine December 4, 2009 at 9:42 am

Excellent Wayne Dyer quote. Totally tweeting it.
.-= Gerlaine´s last blog ..Gerlaine Talk Refocus… =-.

LeeShand November 28, 2009 at 10:36 am

Ah, David, thank-you. Once again, you made me realize something about myself that I really have to take a look at. I have been letting someone else control my happiness, and why would I do that? Reading your post, I felt shameful that I do this “blame-thing” constantly, and yet relieved that I can change it and take the power back. So thank-you again and be safe in your travels.

David November 28, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Thanks. You may find it is a deeply unconscious thing a lot of the time. But every time you catch yourself in the middle of it, you can make it more conscious and less habitual.
.-= David´s last blog ..Goodbye Thailand, I Miss You Already =-.

Gerlaine December 4, 2009 at 10:04 am

No need to feel shame. Just be aware realize and move on. You are moving into enlightenment this way. :)
.-= Gerlaine´s last blog ..Gerlaine Talk Refocus… =-.

Joy November 28, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Taking responsibility for everything that happens to me…Huge lesson that I need to be mindful of. Last night the winds whipped through my little harbor, someone said the strongest gust was 60 mph….I usually find the winds energizing, but in the middle of the night with the loud howling, floorboards literally shaking, rigging clanking, many noises I couldn’t place, I felt some moments of fear…quickly followed by blame…who took that line down, who tied that line up, who didn’t blah blah….until I realized the bottom line is “it is what it is” I was in a wind storm, as a result of my choice to live on a boat. And this experience was part of my choice. Tough work to take responsibility:)
.-= Joy´s last blog ..Joy =-.

Gerlaine December 4, 2009 at 9:35 am

I was just feeling the joy of blame while I was reading this post. I was ignoring a call, because I have a hard time saying no to people who need help. My mom answers the phone and rips me of my I’m not at home excuse and now I find myself saying okay, I’ll take you where you want to go, even though I plain just don’t have time.

I blame my mom for answering a call that I was ignoring. I blame the person who called, because they know that I work at home and if I don’t work, then I don’t make any money.

Well, I forgive the whole situation, because you know what? It doesn’t matter. I am responsible for uttering the word “yes” when I could have just said no. I chose this situation.

Just as I was writing this, my parents let me know they had to use my car anyway. So, ended up having to say no. All things worked out. I actually “had” to say no anyway, because I needed to work.

This blame stuff really sets up an ‘illusion’ for you, doesn’t it?
.-= Gerlaine´s last blog ..Gerlaine Talk Refocus… =-.

kenz. June 7, 2010 at 9:33 am

David, i find your insights truly engaging and they have redefined alot thoughts that I am trying to curb, becoming more mindful in the process.

I believe that blame is useless, yet funnily enough, it’s like an intuitive reaction.

I was also very curious to whether you could email me some of your preferences on some other blogs or books that have shaped your insights on this world, it would be really appreciated!

kenz.

David June 7, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Thanks. Will do.

Stacey June 28, 2010 at 3:54 pm

About the time you wrote this, I found out my husband was cheating on me with a woman from work. I’ve spent the past 7 months feeling trapped by his poor decision. I’ve definitely been caught up blaming him and this other woman for my suffering.

What you’ve written here is so true. Trying to blame them for my suffering has not made the situation better or different. My reality is what it is now, and taking responsibility for my life will definitely move me out from the role of “victim”. Who wants to be a victim of their own life anyway? Thanks for the insight.

David June 28, 2010 at 10:24 pm

I’m glad this was able to help you. If you read my latest post, you’ll know I had a minor catastrophe yesterday, and even though it was ultimately my fault, I kept experiencing all sorts of blameful thoughts: the airline for making me late, the crappy backpack that unzipped itself and let my items fall and break, the Hong Kong airport for being so hopelessly huge… but I’m the one who has to deal with it.

Yes, the victim mentality is one of complete powerlessness. As long as there’s blame, there’s no healing.

hll June 29, 2010 at 5:19 am

i do not thing suffering is our ‘fault’ either. it would be good if to take this full responsibility for one’s own suffering could lead to some greater empowerment or sense of empowerment; it doesn’t, in my experience. i can’t fix it, can’t reduce it. the benefit of reducing resentment is considerable yeah, although maybe that is debatable too. to b sad instead of angry is perhaps not so useful if decisive action is needed in dangerous situations
i agree about the nonexistence of evil. cause and effect is what there is. why am i so sad and weak. no examination of causes will answer this in a way that alleviates anything. insight is not enough. whatever enough is i can'[t do it. getting older now. think i never will. should not have been born. don’t say anything.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) June 29, 2010 at 4:00 pm

hll~ You are meant to be here. Your life does have value. You have much to share with others.

I hope you join us here in discussion often~ thank you for giving of yourself in your comment. I was able to reflect on my times of feeling this way, your strength is in your sharing, now I will too throughout my day.

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