On Blame, Compassion, and Forgiveness
I’ve heard a lot of people out here blame the Forest Service for the number of forest fires. They say it is mismanagement that has caused the fires. I don’t know if it is quite that simple. I believe that climate change has played a part. I suspect having acres of dead standing timber from the beetle kill has not helped anything, nor have years of drought. But neither do I say that the Forest Service is blameless. Actually, what I say is that I really don't know. I haven't read up on the science and the research. I know the Forest Service and other government agencies mandated to protect the environment have unknowingly made some whopper mistakes, such as handing out invasive plants for people to plant. But I’m not sure all the blame for the fires can be laid at their feet. After all, who is the Forest Service but a bunch of individuals guided by the knowledge they have learned over their years in school and beyond? I doubt everyone in the Forest Service thinks alike. Somehow by lumping these people together, it is easier to lose the individual humanity of each person and see them as bad or evil. Perhaps we need to blame their teachers, or the teachers of the teachers. Whose fault is it really?
This has led me to think about blame. I used to blame others a lot. Thankfully, I don't think it happens anymore. It was easy when I was young to blame someone else when I did not want to take responsibility. Really, the person I have most blamed in my life is myself. I have a friend who is so used to me blaming myself that she will jokingly ask me how I can make something that happened to her when I wasn't around be my fault. Trust me, I find a way.
I think blame is a way to try to overcome a sense of helplessness. If we can make some unmanageable situation someone else's fault, then perhaps someone can make it manageable. And certainly certain things are the result of certain behaviors, but I find most situations too complicated to sink into simple blame. We used to bleed people who were sick. Many drugs we once thought helpful have fallen into disuse as more knowledge about them has surfaced. Most decisions are made with the best knowledge available at the time, but of course that knowledge is always changing. There are some people, like the makers of opioids and tobacco, who knew that their products could do harm yet they refused to publicize it and continued to push their products. I could blame them for greed. But mostly I have a hard time with blame.
I know that when I was at my worst with post-traumatic stress and dissociation I would sometimes do things I wish I had done differently. I would blame myself, but in reality until I got help in making connections and getting past the parts, I was helpless to do things differently. When the parts got triggered, it was like I was on a moving train and could not get off. Luckily, I never did anything horrible when in that place, but I sure wish I hadn’t been so unkind.
All of this has made it difficult for me to blame anyone for anything. I don’t know what that person has experienced or is thinking that led to certain actions that look blamable. I think most situations are much more complicated than a simple blame game. I think it is fairly easy to see that a child who acts mean or lashes out as a result of being abused at home or school is hardly to blame. But how do we extrapolate this to adult behavior? What about the war vets with parts who have a short fuse? I think most of us could forgive that behavior, knowing it was not their fault that they were exposed to horrific war scenes that caused the short fuse.
Where does it end? Most of us have had trauma of some sort in our lives, even if it was as basic as being shamed by a teacher in front of other kids. Of course we each have responsibility for our actions, but how do we decipher that responsibility when the events leading up to it are not simple and were not that person’s choice?
It was only by recognizing that I couldn’t blame myself completely for how I was and what I did, and by acknowledging that I was a product of my childhood, that I was able to go a bit easier on myself. This has extrapolated to others for whom I can now have more compassion. While I still struggle mightily with the result of the abuse I suffered in childhood, i am grateful for the wisdom and compassion it has taught me, especially in regards to blame.
I believe that when we stop blaming others we can come to see them in their humanity and learn compassion and forgiveness. Then the barriers and sense of one side against the other can fall. Instead, with blame gone, each side is more able to learn from the other. And with the added knowledge of both sides working together surely better decisions can be made.
Above: Scorched earth in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area of Montana.