Letting Go of Blame

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Dear Still Water Friends,

There is a paragraph in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step I keep coming back to. It is like a biblical parable. I keep understanding it in new ways.

When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

I grew up with blaming so deeply ingrained it wasn’t even seen. When something went well, I was praised. When something didn’t go well, I was blamed. It was as if there was an inner me that each day was either getting cookies or getting electrical shocks. As I grew older, and had more words, I learned that I could be the one that gave cookies or gave shocks.

I continued to blame others (in the sense of judging, censuring, and punishing) because that was what I knew how to do. And sometimes I split myself in two and blamed the weak, lazy, or unacceptable parts of myself. I had not yet learned that there were ways of working with my disappointments and distresses that emphasized accountability rather than blame, that nourished connection rather than separation.

It is hard to let go of blaming! Like a cigarette to a smoker, or a drink to an alcoholic, it offers pleasurable, though not lasting, benefits. Blaming takes responsibility for the distressing condition away from us and makes others completely responsible. We create a world of villains and heroes, or villains and victims. In our distress, we simply ignore the ways we have acted (as individuals, groups, or countries) that have conditioned the actions of others.

Blaming others for that which distresses us allows us to create a self-satisfying and morally superior (although false) narrative about our lives. Our shortcomings are explained away by the actions of others. Erica Jong writes in How to Save Your Own Life:

How wonderful to have someone to blame! How wonderful to live with one’s nemesis! You may be miserable, but you feel forever in the right. You may be fragmented, but you feel absolved of all the blame for it. Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.

In perhaps its darkest aspect, blame is used to justify oppression and violence. Once we have established that the situation causing us distress is “their” fault, because of their evil actions or evil natures, we feel justified in taking action against them if “they” don’t agree with us and change their ways. We may seek to forcibly prevent them from acting in certain ways, to hurt them as they have hurt us, to teach them to see it our way through punishment, or to destroy them.

Every time we judgmentally blame others, we reinforce the notion that we exist separately from them, that what happens to them materially, psychologically, or spiritually, will not affect us. Mindfulness practice encourages another approach: We are intimately interconnected. The boundaries between us are permeable.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us that if we always see ourselves as existing separately from others, every relationship has a seed of struggle in it. If, when any physical or emotional resource is scarce, we ask: “Will it come to me or to her, to us or to them?” it is difficult for peace, ease, or joy to come into our lives. If we can come to see that despite the apparent separateness, we are all part of the great flow of being, life becomes less confrontational. We come to understand that just as our right hand cannot be happy when our left hand is in pain, so also the suffering of others is our suffering; their joy is our joy.

You are invited to be with us this Thursday evening. We will talk about our experiences with blaming and our discovery of alternative approaches. Have we learned to lovingly tend the garden rather than blaming the lettuce?

In the excerpt below, Meryl Runion, a business consultant, explains the critical differences between blame and accountability.

Warm wishes and many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner


Blame Versus Accountability
by Meryl Runion, from Beyond Blame: The Dos And Don’ts Of Responsibility

Here’s what blame does:

  • Blame examines responsibility to condemn and punish.
  • Blame focuses only on what went wrong.
  • Blame is black and white in its assessment.
  • Blame is emotional.
  • Blame is personal.

Here’s what accountability does:

  • Accountability examines responsibility to discover what can be done.
  • Accountability focuses on what happened and what needs to be corrected.
  • Accountability explores the complexity of situations.
  • Accountability is reasonable.
  • Accountability examines situations, decisions and behaviors rather than people.

Blame tends to err on the side of being unreasonable and unforgiving. Accountability forgives the forgivable but does not accept the unacceptable.

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