Joshua Keel

Sh*t Happens

February 9, 2020

What do you do when failure occurs? When circumstances go awry and you experience some negative consequence you didn’t see coming? When things get seriously un-fun?

There are two well-worn paths we humans trod when shit happens—we either find someone to blame (often ourselves), or we take responsibility and move forward in a constructive manner.

The Problem With Blame

For years, I blamed myself for all kinds of things: not eating the right food, not doing the right exercises, not dressing the right way, not thinking the right thoughts and so on. Whenever someone even hinted that I may have done something in a less-than-ideal manner, I blamed myself. Harshly. I felt their (real or imagined) wrath come crashing down on my head.

Over time, I started to understand a few key points about blame and responsibility:

  1. We’re all just doing the best we can. The twins of nature and nurture have saddled some of us with more obstacles than others.
  2. Just because I am responsible for creating a problem doesn’t mean I am wrong in a fundamental way.
  3. Blame, in the sense of assigning guilt and paving the way for punishment, is unhelpful. What’s called for instead is taking responsibility.

Blame is a way to point fingers, at someone else or yourself, as a way of scapegoating and ignoring the real problem to be faced: where do we go from here?

When we blame ourselves—when we feel ashamed and fucked up—we are subtly bypassing the problem of how to change our own behavior, how to make better decisions in the future.

The Body Machine

Sometimes I find it helpful to think of my body as a machine, a sort of separate entity, lumbering and stupid. It responds to its inputs in a complex and sometimes unpredictable manner, but over time it can be trained. It can be gently prodded into alignment with behavioral goals.

When the body doesn’t respond as asked—it said something offensive, or ate all the cookies—it’s not a problem with me. I no more need to feel ashamed of my body than I need to feel ashamed of a street lamp. Both are just doing their jobs as mechanical and biological machines.

However, what is needed is to take responsibility for my body’s bad behavior. I am the unfortunate owner of this body which, like a misbehaving dog, needs to be corrected. If my dog bites you, I need to make it right. If my body says something unkind, I have to make that right as well.

This way of thinking about what happens in my body stems directly from my belief that free will is an illusion. We make choices, sure, but those choices stem from unconscious parts of our brain, as well as our circumstances, genetics, decisions our parents made when we were three, etc.

I know that scientifically I am not at all separate from my body, but it can be helpful for me to think of my body as an entity of its own so that I can psychologically distance myself from its actions. Let me reiterate that this is not a way of escaping responsibility. Instead, it is a way of acknowledging that ultimately life is living me, not I life.

There is no humonculus in my head pulling the levers. There is simply a process unfolding. A process that started with a fertilized egg, and ends with a return to dust.

Take Responsibility

All I’ve said about the downsides of blame is simply to turn the focus back to what happens next, in the moment after you’ve made a mistake. It is up to all of us to change ourselves, since no one else has any power to do so. We can lock you up for the rest of your life, but can’t change your heart and mind. Not without your wanting us to.

When we’ve fucked up, let’s admit it without judging ourselves, and without trying to place blame elsewhere. Instead, let’s consider how we might be transformed through the experience of failure, how we might firm up our character and become better people.

When others have shown us their dark, their weak side, let’s not blame them for who they are. Instead, let’s take collective responsibility (a uniquely un-American concept) for fixing things, and ensuring this kind of failure is prevented in the future.

Since we are not the individuals we think we are, but instead are networked in infinitely complex ways, totally interdependent, mutually affected and malleable, let’s take care of each other. Find ways to help one another. Create environments that produce the behavior we want, instead of depending on each other to be saints by dint of hard effort.

Let’s take responsibility for both our actions and each other. Let’s stop playing the blame game.