“The Blame Game”  by  Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – January 23, 2011

Call to Worship  – from Ravi Shankar

To love someone whom you like is insignificant.

To love someone because they love you is of no consequence.

To love someone whom you do not like means you have learned a lesson in life.

To love someone who blames you for no reason shows that you have learned the art of living.

Reading  – from Blame by Michelle Huneven

“Eating the Blame,” a Zen Buddhist story

One day the preparation of dinner was delayed at the Zen monastery.  The cook had to hurriedly chop the vegetables and cook the meal for the master and his students. In haste, he went to the garden and took his curved knife to cut off all the tops of the green vegetables.  He chopped them together to make a soup, but he was in such a hurry, he did not notice that he had chopped off part of a snake who was lounging in the afternoon sun in the garden.  The followers of the master decided they had never tasted such a wonderful soup.  But when the master himself found the snake’s head in his bowl, he summoned the cook, and demanded, “What’s this?”  while he held up the head. “Oh, Thank you master,” replied the cook, taking the morsel and eating it quickly.

Sermon –  “The Blame Game”  –  Mark W. Harris

I sometimes recall how my son Joel used to assign blame when he was little.  For instance there was the time I heard a drinking glass smash and break in our kitchen.  I rushed in to find my three year old standing over a large puddle and countless shards of glass.  He looked at me innocently and declared, “broke.”  There was neither a sense of personal responsibility uttered, such as, I dropped my glass or I poured too much, nor was there an assigning of blame to me, such as you put my plastic cup out of reach. It felt like he was saying the glass imploded, and yet it was quite clear that he dropped it.  No one was to blame.  It just happened.  Well, accidents do happen, but we humans have a proclivity to assign blame, or perhaps like him, avoid blame being attributed to us. Many people always have an excuse.

When bad things happen we like to find a culprit whom we can blame, and even punish. Globe West this week had an article about one of the oldest family owned farms in the country.  The farm was started in the early eighteenth century by two brothers named Nourse, and the owners over the centuries have found numerous ways to make it flourish. But when I read further, I discovered that the original Nourse owners were two brothers, children of Rebecca Nurse, an accused and convicted witch from Salem Village in 1692, who was hanged on Gallows Hill.  The brothers migrated to Westborough, and added an “o” to their last name, to try to conceal the stigma of being connected to their mother.  The city folk in Salem blamed their assorted land and money squabbles on their country bumpkin neighbors in the rural village we know today as Danvers.  Accused witches tended to be women, older people or what we might call eccentrics or odd people, those who were vulnerable to attack.  They took the blame for others woes.  In elementary school I recall how bullies often targeted those we labeled new or odd, and these children were often chided to learn how to take it.  It was almost as if we were saying , you deserve to get bullied because you are different.   Today, it is the bullies themselves who are the isolated ones becoming the objects of our blame.  We blame the victim or we blame the perpetrator.

Finding someone or something to blame for our personal or communal woes goes back to the beginning of history.  In the Jewish tradition, we have the idea of the scapegoat. Yom Kippur recalls the day of atonement, when the sins of the people were symbolically placed on the goat, who was driven off into the wilderness. All of the ways the people had broken covenant with God were cast off or let go of, so that they could begin anew. While this may seem cruel to one lone goat, it does alleviate the human tendency to blame others for our afflictions. This has often taken deadly form, as we saw with the witch trials.  No one exemplifies this more than Adolph Hitler who whipped the German people into a vengeful frame of mind when he blamed the Jews for causing all of Germany’s post World War I economic woes.  Yet examples of people seeking a source to blame for the tragic that unfolds in our unpredictable lives seem endless when we peruse the news headlines.  We need only look at the shooting of the congresswoman and several others in Tucson. Various pundits blamed it variously on the terrible rhetoric of violence and hate that we witness in our political discourse, gun laws, or even our inability to help those who suffer from mental illness.  Sarah Palin was quick to deny that her cross hair reference had anything to do with provoking a shooter, but then she made her comment worse by using the term “blood libel,” which is part of a long history of again blaming the Jews, the historically labeled Christ killers, for society’s ills.  Palin provides a good negative example of the need to know what you are talking about before you either deny or even accept blame.

Yet who is willing to accept blame, or dare I say, accept responsibility even for something you have done or agreed to do? A little over two years ago an eight year old boy died after he accidentally shot himself with an UZI machine gun at a gun show in Westfield.  The gun show organizer was recently acquitted in a case where he was accused of being criminally responsible for the boy’s death. God knows the terrible grief and anguish this father has felt since he captured this horrific scene on film, but where is the personal culpability for taking your eight year old to such an event in the first place, allowing him to shoot, and then trying to blame his death on someone else. Is a legal case like this a way to abrogate responsibility and find a scapegoat in society or gun laws or people who promote such events?  Who knows?  The father may forever blame himself for going to such an event in the first place.  We all take responsibility for our actions in greater or lesser ways.

Accepting responsibility for one’s actions is something we would usually associate with the transition from childhood to adulthood.  Sometimes we parents may feel that the teenage years are the last gasp of a maturing young person’s inclination to blame everything that is wrong about their lives on their parents with words such as you didn’t do this, or you didn’t let me do that.  At one time children
learned that adulthood was a time in life that brought greater freedom and opportunity.  Yet many of the liberties we once associated with adulthood, such  as “doing” drugs, “having” sex, “making” babies, and “getting” money and resulting purchases already occur for both rich and poor youth.  Thomas Szasz says, “For such adolescents, adulthood becomes synonymous with responsibility rather than liberty.  Is it any surprise that they remain adolescents?”

In a free society we tend to place a huge emphasis on the freedom of the individual to do what they want to do, free of the coercive arm of the state, until they break the law.  Liberals despair over gun laws, where any cowboy can bring a loaded, concealed weapon into such public places as a state house, while the politicians hold up the icon of the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.  Yet this is a total misreading of the constitution’s second amendment, which is about the state’s right to maintain a militia.  In other words it’s about the national guard, not my right to carry an assault weapon.  Yet this breaks down when these free laws allow someone to go buy a gun without any background check or the need for permits.  And it breaks down further when someone who clearly needed help for his mental illness fails to receive that help, even when it has been identified as a need.  We are so focused on the freedom of the individual to make money, buy what we want, do what we want, that we find no community based resources to help anyone before they commit a crime.  There are plenty of resources to punish after the fact.

When it comes to accepting blame and responsibility we tend to focus on the individual.  So we know the human tendency is to blame others. We can go through life blaming our personal problems on our parents, our job loss on the president, or the cold temperatures in our house on the greedy oil companies.  Each of these people or entities may well bear influence on us, but until we decide that the problems we have are our own, then we will probably be crippled from making much progress with the problems or our own self-esteem, because those problems are always someone else’s fault. We have to realize that we must do whatever we can to control our own destiny.

For instance, who is to blame for the national epidemic of obesity, and what should be done about it?  Is it individuals whose eating is out of control or is it the junk food served up by McDonald’s, or others with seductive advertising, or is it our lifestyles that are so sedentary? We can blame individuals, society, fast food or families for the rapid rise in obesity rates, but blame does not help us address what to do about it.  So we can work hard to try to ensure that our children get exercise and balanced diets, and change our own habits as well. Now some companies and institutions have moved to hold individuals specifically accountable for their weight.  Is this fair?  The problem is we can’t have it both ways.  We may feel that choosing to be fat is a legitimate life option, but should a fat person be given special accommodations as well?  Shouldn’t an airline have the right to charge for two seats for someone who takes up two seats?

Who to apportion blame to is at the heart of these difficult questions. A couple of years ago after dropping Andrea off at the front door of the church, I drove down the circular driveway and turned right on Church Street.  It was dark, and as I passed the church sign I checked to make sure the flood lights were on, as I usually do.  Before I knew what was happening, three pedestrians were darting in front of me from behind the sign, jaywalking their way toward the Masonic Hall. I screeched to a halt, and barely, I mean barely, came in contact with one woman who jumped backwards.  I stopped and we exchanged information, but we both presumed she was fine.  I breathed a sigh of relief, but then was surprised the next day to receive a phone call from her saying that after a night’s sleep she had discovered she had whiplash, and needed some therapy.  She said I could make it all go away for $1,500.  I called our then student minister, who was also a lawyer.  After he cried scam and extortion, I knew I was in trouble.  I immediately reported the whole thing to the police.  Of course the problem is, as the police told me, is that when a car hits a pedestrian the car driver is always at fault.  Now I have an insurance surcharge for a major accident that never happened. Or did it?  I began to even question myself – maybe I hit her more than I thought.  Was I really paying attention?  I was trying to assign more blame to myself when dealing with a person who wouldn’t accept any blame for her actions, confusing the moral issue even further.

Here I had a miserable person who was going to be miserable whether she extorted a little money out of my insurance company or not.  Blaming me did not lead to her accepting any responsibility, and in fact, it led me to feeling more guilty that I might have actually done something.  Yet it has also become clear to me that blaming her, even if it was not my fault in any way was not going to help me or the situation. Blaming others always keeps us in a stuck state, extending anger in my case.  We are never free to be the masters of our own fate. The power of moving beyond blame is exemplified in the novel Blame by Michelle Huneven.  Normally in our culture we might tend to despair that most people do not take enough responsibility.  They blame others for their problems or society’s ills, and don’t take enough responsibility for themselves.  A sermon such as this might easily conclude that the best thing for us to do is not to blame others, but accept our own role in these situations, and determine what we can do to make it better.

This is seemingly what the lead character in Blame does through most of the novel.  In brief, she is a fun loving college professor named Patsy, who is also a raging alcoholic.  The story goes that she got terribly drunk one night, tried to drive home, and proceeded to strike two pedestrians, a mother and daughter, in her driveway, and kill them.  She suffered a blackout from the drinking, and so remembers very little of the experience.  She spends two years in prison as a result of the vehicular homicide.  Later her therapist, Ms Silver, tells her, “This has been a great tragedy for everyone. . . Two people lost their lives, and now you have to carry that burden for the rest of yours . . “And that’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Patsy said.  “How to carry that burden and make up for it in some way.”  She ends up feeling she has to add something good to the world to make up for this.  Patsy becomes the ideal example of taking responsibility for her actions and learning to control her worst impulses.  In taking the responsibility for this tragedy, she apportions blame to herself.  So there is no blame given to her addiction or her psychological state or some tragedy in her own background.  She simply believes she did it and takes full responsibility, not only to serve her time in punishment, but to try to make up for it. She does this by paying the son’s way through college.  She finds a new life after prison, but then discovers, unbelievably, that the blame she has accepted has been tragically misapplied.

Patsy reveals how she thinks of the people she killed every day of her life. But then she receives a phone call from a friend who has learned the real truth about the accident. It seems Patsy was so drunk that a man she met in the bar, drove her home, hit the two people, and then fled the scene, leaving Patsy to accept responsibility.  Because she suffered a two day blackout, she remembered none of this, and consequently unfairly took the blame. What does it mean that after twenty years the truth has come out?  How do you reapportion blame that you presumed was yours?  One lingering question that her therapist asked was, “Why do you think you took on guilt so readily?

What is striking about this character is that she, like many of us, is willing to accept the blame, even when it shows that we bear little or no responsibility for what happened.  Do you often say, “I could have done more.” Patsy says, I never should have taken my car out. I never should have been driving.  Like her, I think sometimes we not only accept responsibility for what we have done, but we are even ready to own a bigger part that belongs to somebody else.  Part of dealing with and parceling out blame is to not accept too much of it, or to go overboard with personal responsibility.  When we do this we second guess ourselves by saying, I have not done enough, or I was in the wrong, and we search ourselves to prove to ourselves how wrong we must be.  Our inclination to blame ourselves means we can never build self-esteem, or so we are never good enough. How quickly, like Patsy, we are ready to think the worst of ourselves, and accept blame instead of affirming that we have done all we could have and tried our best, but cannot prevent accidents or control others decisions.

Patsy’s husband wants her to continue to accept some blame because she went out. But she challenges this attempt to place the blame on her still.  She reminds him that she gave up her keys. Someone who asked to drive was driving, and what were the strangers doing on her property? It was a terrible accident, and the driver fled. She was not to blame.  Like Patsy, some of us take stuff too hard, or take a greater role than we are truly responsible for.   And others do not take things hard enough.  We blame ourselves for our imperfect children. We blame ourselves for not eating the right food or using the right light bulbs, as if we singlehandedly were causing global warming.  We blame ourselves for not loving our spouses enough, or for the relationship that didn’t work out. We blame ourselves when someone darts in front of our car, and we hit them by accident.  We all need to free ourselves from taking life so hard.  In the end Patsy talks about how cunning and powerful alcohol is.  She is free of the blame for the accident, but the alcohol makes her plead guilt even when she is not. Sometimes we hurt ourselves by taking on too much blame. It is good to take responsibility in life, and I bet most of you do.  But what is even more helpful, and will lead to greater spiritual depth and self-understanding is when we all stop taking more blame, or more guilt, or more responsibility than we ever should. In the Zen Buddhist story, “Eating the Blame,” the cook takes the snake’s head, and eats it, but it has made a tasty soup.  He accepts responsibility when he should, and then moves on.  Instead of trying to find ways to blame ourselves for all the shortcomings of our lives, we, too should eat the blame and move on, celebrating all the richness of who we are, accepting what blame we need to, but never forgetting the lovely soup we have made.

Closing Words – from Rainer Maria Rilke

If your everyday life seems poor, do not blame it; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.