I must have been six or seven when in a fit of scientific curiosity I determined to find out what would happen if I played our family piano with a hammer. No need to provide graphic illustration of my findings; some things are best left to the imagination. In any case, stepping on the chips of piano keys on the floor, my step-father confronted me, demanding to know if I had been the agent of destruction. The hammer still in my hand, I denied any responsibility for whatever alleged misdeed he might have in mind. My brother was two at the time; his hammering skills would improve quickly, but he was clearly not capable of the damage I had wrought. In the moment, facing accountability, recognizing the absurdity of trying to weasel away, did I blame him? Did I evade and equivocate?
Two questions emerge now:
I had the hammer in my hand; who did he think had whacked the keys into pulp?
I had the hammer in my hand; why did I think denial was in any way a plausible response?
I’m not sure that my step-father could have had a worse opinion of my trustworthiness than he already possessed, but in that moment, I had a worse opinion of my trustworthiness, an opinion I have been carrying ever since. Of course I should have owned up; what the heck, the evidence was overwhelming. Beyond the legacy of that moment, this was but one of many situations that I wish I had handled differently.
So, one obvious outcome of ducking responsibility and blaming is an erosion of self-esteem. Even if I avoid or postpone an outcome that I want to avoid, I know the truth I did not tell. I feel lousy. Again. I have friends who remind me that if I want self-esteem, the quickest path is to do estimable things. So, there’s that.
An even more obvious outcome of blaming is that it accomplished nothing worthwhile. No pianos were un-smashed, no step-father was comforted, no hammer wielding kid was congratulated on his initiative.
Then, as the alleged piano debacle proved, my relationship with my step-father was forever informed by that moment. I was young, sure, but I established the certainty that I could not be trusted to tell the truth.
Why begin this discussion of the cost of blaming?
I’ve heard an awful lot of blaming in the last few weeks as a new administration meets the complexity of contemporary issues, and I am worried by it. Political opinions aside, action seems more profitable than reaction. I’m no expert in the field, but I’m pretty sure that blaming isn’t coping. As is always the case, my observations are purely my own and based on my own experience, and from what I’ve observed as a world-class blamer over the decades, the more I cast blame, the worse I make things and the worse I feel.
That’s an interesting side-effect that always takes me by surprise. I am as resistant to accountability as the next shiftless character, but even I feel a twinge when I duck and run. I’m not immune to guilt, and there are plenty of situations in which I should feel guilty, but this twinge comes in my realization that I have given away a bit of my own agency when I shove responsibility out of my path. I will admit that I have not been all that willing to grow up, and my first instincts may still slide right back to kindergarten, but over the years a tiny voice has called again and again:
“What would an adult do?”
More often than not, in almost any situation, an adult would take responsibility for his or her part in situations as they arise, consider options carefully, and act in the best interest of all concerned.
Even when the situation is messy.
Stuff happens. It just does. Despite best intentions, thoughtful planning, and high expectations.
So here we are, with unanticipated and messy stuff happening all around us; the world seems to become more complicated day by day. Of all the tools at our command, blame may be the first to come out of the cupboard, but it never really does much to improve the mess. The danger is that with each blaming reaction, coping skills atrophy; other responses are shoved deeper into the cupboard. Habits die hard and new behavior takes conscious effort and a willingness to try to do better. For retrograde characters such as I, coping actually takes practice.
For example, say I open a letter from the IRS and retreat immediately to blaming — the postal service, previous employers, the Federal Government, FDR, Wall Street, the kind volunteer who helped me prepare my tax return, the guy next door who might have slimed his way out of paying his share, my grade school teacher for not making sure I knew how to add and subtract, and on and on.
Hmmmm. The letter is still in my hands. The IRS is apparently not interested in my catalog of defamations. I’m back to asking what an adult would do, slapping my forehead, remembering the small steps toward responsibility such as opening the letter, reading it, reading it again, driving to the local IRS office, clarifying what is needed, then doing the next appropriate thing in order to move on.
It doesn’t seem that hard when I look at from a hypothetical point of view. Drop me headfirst into a mess, and I need to some time to remember my intention to respond as a responsible adult might respond. It takes practice.
I’m getting better. I really am. I admit that there are a few charges I haven’t dropped yet. Nothing serious, but still. Moving on, I should release with love the person who sold me the Buick LeSabre knowing that it was about to fall off both axles. That’s on me; I should have looked under the car. I did leave my comic books and baseball cards at home when I spun out into the world; I miss them, but that’s on me as well. No reason to assume parents would know that the only possessions I cared about should not be pitched in a landfill somewhere in rural Connecticut.
Moving on. That’s what Ebay is for, but if this article provokes you to buy Power Ranger figurines or a Mr. Ed lunchbox, don’t blame me.