The Blame Game

Recently someone remarked that whenever the concept of “blame” came up for her, she tried not to take hold of it.  It always seemed to hurt her eventually.  There was a ring of important truth to the notion.

I took this as a topic to the sitting group I lead in Oakland.  There, it blossomed into a wonderful examination of responsibility, resentment, the notion that misdeeds are done by “bad people,” and much more.

Several people felt it was important for there to be responsibility for our behavior.  In Buddhist scriptures, shame is considered vital in keeping society civil.  That has to be distinguished from guilt, which is an internal sense that we’re bad.  Shame is the less toxic sense that we’ve failed to act the way we intended.

For responsibility to be assigned for harmful deeds, must the perpetrator feel guilty?  Must the victim or others feel anger or hatred?  It seemed to a number of us that this is where responsibility shades into blame and becomes unhelpful.

For me, the notion of “bad people” has always been difficult.  Certainly, humans can develop tendencies to harm others, sometimes severely.  Some seem to cause suffering because they revel in it, while other “villains” believe they’re acting in a good cause.  If we value the well-being of all, we are called on to do what we can to stop harmful conduct.  Can we – or should we – do so with compassion rather than resentment?  Imagine a law enforcement system geared to ending harmful conduct rather than punishing people.  It might even provide mental health care!

There’s an old saying that carrying resentment is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.  Vengeful feelings have a corrosive effect on us, tying our thinking in knots that cloud our judgment and leave us tense.

Maybe that’s why my friend tries to avoid taking hold of the idea of blame. Like anger, blame covers over subtler but deeper feelings of hurt.  In the long run, though, blame can take a heavy toll.   What do you think?

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2 Responses to The Blame Game

  1. Antoinette Wolfe says:

    This post spoke strongly to me, as something happened recently in my life that made me blame “them” and myself. And that’s where I felt the crux was: them versus myself.

    Blaming myself was very useful. The “blame” was a feeling, not a thought or a judgment, and it created a gap before guilt could set in. In my experience, guilt is destructive – so I didn’t want to go that route. By blaming myself, I was able to step into the gap and investigate instead of developing guilt. I could ask myself how this felt exactly, where it came from, what I did that was unskillful, and how I could do better next time. I’m still in the midst of this and am learning a lot about how I practice giving and what needs to change.

    Blaming them, on the other had, felt like a very bad idea. It made me think of the poem by Thich Nhat Hanh “Please call me by my true names” (http://www.quietspaces.com/poemHanh.html). He shows that no one, absolutely no one, is beyond understanding and compassion, and what makes his demonstration so valuable is that he speaks from his own experience of war and cruelty.

    But then, here’s the rub: accountability. Does compassion dispense from accountability? It seems to me that insisting on accountability is what can make us change so that we don’t repeat the same harmful behavior. It’s so so important not to repeat. That would require an ability to look directly at the suffering we have caused without fear or guilt – just with a calm willingness to understand. So if we want accountability to replace guilt, we need to find skillful ways of fostering that willingness in ourselves and in others. With the Dharma, that’s not too difficult – at least we know where to look. But what about people who are not interested in the Dharma? How could we gently nudge them toward taking responsibility, in a way that’s positive for them and not only for others? Should we try? I hope some of you will have answers to those questions.

    Thank you Rebecca for the opportunities you give us by creating this blog.
    Take care.

  2. Antoinette Wolfe says:

    This post spoke strongly to me, as something happened recently in my life that made me blame “them” and myself. And that’s where I felt the crux was: them versus myself.

    Blaming myself was very useful. The “blame” was a feeling, not a thought or a judgment, and it created a gap before guilt could set in. In my experience, guilt is destructive – so I didn’t want to go that route. By blaming myself, I was able to step into the gap and investigate instead of developing guilt. I could ask myself how this felt exactly, where it came from, what I did that was unskillful, and how I could do better next time. I’m still in the midst of this and am learning a lot about how I practice giving and what needs to change.

    Please read above for the entire text of this thoughtful comment.

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