“To understand anything, what is essential? A quiet mind, is it not? So long as the mind is in conflict, blaming, resisting, condemning, there can be no understanding.”
J. Krishnamurti The First and Last Freedom
As we have seen in previous essays, suffering seems to be an inevitable part of being human. And of course suffering comes in many forms. I suffer because I have cancer. I suffer almost as much because I think I might have cancer. I suffer because my child is injured. I suffer because I think my spouse has been unfaithful. If I am very partisan, I suffer when my team loses the final or when the political party I support does poorly in the election. I suffer because I am aging and my greatest aspirations are unfulfilled. I suffer when my child does not live up to my expectations. I suffer when I don’t get the job promotion I believe I deserved.
And unfortunately our suffering is intensified by the thought that things might somehow have been otherwise and as a result we ask ourselves a lot of pointless questions. If only I had gone to the doctor when that little lump first appeared? If only I had been more attentive when my spouse started coming home later? If only I had sought tuition for my child when she first seemed to struggle with her maths?
Before long we begin to start to seek to apportion blame for our suffering. That’s natural isn’t it – when something goes wrong surely someone must be to blame? Not only that, if someone is to blame surely it is rightful to exact retribution?
My husband was inveigled into his alcoholism by those reprobates who encouraged him to have a drink every afternoon on the way home from work. Shouldn’t they be held responsible?
I only became obese after my friends insisted we have coffee and cake three days a week. Surely they should be held accountable?
I only lost my job because my boss had unreasonable expectations about how much business I should generate as a salesman. It’s his fault I am unemployed.
Johnny was such a good boy until he got in with the wrong crowd! It’s their fault he’s in jail.
When it comes to ourselves, and often our loved ones, our egos don’t allow us to believe that our failings are our own doing. We become victims and abrogate any sense of personal responsibility. When we do well, however, we are quick to accept responsibility even when it is not deserved; but when we fail we cast around for others to blame.
This subterfuge greatly diminishes our freedom. Not only that but it prevents us from coming to know ourselves. We have seen previously that our sense of well-being is dependent on our self-knowledge and subsequently our self-acceptance. We all have our weaknesses and our failings. Facing up to that, rather than denying it, actually empowers us. In 1967 Thomas Harris wrote I’m OK – You’re OK. The book rapidly became a best-seller and was one of the first self-help pop psychology books to gain such wide recognition. It introduced a general audience to the notion of Transactional Analysis. The Jesuit spiritual teacher, Anthony De Mello famously said, “If I were to write such a book I’d call it I’m an Ass – You’re an Ass.” He suggested the sooner we learnt that lesson the better off we’d be!
And of course the corollary to blame is victimhood. When our ego prevails we convert our wounded nature into our identity – the identity of a victim. As Greg Stone wrote:
“We no longer seek to heal our wounds but rather to display them as symbols of ‘who we are’ – a victim. We invite the world to see our wounds and to know us by our wounds.”
And more than this it helps our act of self-deception if we exaggerate our wounds as well!
Of course we know that victimhood is just another manifestation of learnt suffering – one of our techniques in our behavioural repertoire of “getting our way”. John Narciso and David Burkett outlined such behaviour in their little book Declare Yourself (subsequently republished as Relating Redefined). This is a very wise and perceptive little book and essential reading for anyone who really wants to understand human behaviour.
Narciso and Burkett propose that we learn behaviours that are successful at manipulating others to to get our way. One such behaviour is suffering. Victimhood is an obvious example of suffering. They write:
“When I tell you that you have hurt my feelings, what is it that I want to happen? I want an apology probably. But I want something more than just words that say ‘sorry’. I also want a change in your behaviour. I want you to act differently – more to my expectations. Once you change whatever you are doing that I don’t like, then I don’t have to hurt anymore. As a matter of fact if you comply, you have just agreed to let me control you with my ‘feelings’.”
When I resort to suffering and victimhood I am abrogating self-responsibility. Robert Draper came to this conclusion. Writing in his thought-provoking book Silence is the Answer: To All the Noise of Doubt he tells how he came to the conclusion that he was personally responsible for any negative feeling he might hold. He recounted,
“This doesn’t mean that my mind never again presented a memory of the problem, or that there was never again the pull of negative emotion about it, but only that I no longer believed that someone else was responsible for choosing what was going on within me.”
So let us put aside blame and victimhood. Let us learn the lesson that we choose what meaning to give to what goes on in our outer world and that choice is a large determinant of the state of our inner world. Accepting personal responsibility for our negative feelings is an important step towards inner well-being and serenity.
Psychologists will tell us that our attempts to attribute blame to others result from our tendency to project our own inadequacies onto others. But when we come to accept ourselves, warts and all, we are no longer motivated to blame others. In this way we can deal with the world more objectively and largely avoid the necessity to deal with negative emotions.
Let me finish then with a final quote from Robert Draper.
“To summarize, it is never about the other person when we are upset or reasonable, but only about the often unrecognised decision we make to be in one frame of mind or another. And while we may fall again and again into the trap of believing that we feel as we do because of a person or event external to us, the truth is that the feelings we experience are a result of our choice, coming to us not really because but regardless.”