December 17, 2001

So, the other morning I woke up, performed my usual morning ritual of downing two cups of coffee to make sure that I was still alive, and turned on the TV to catch the early news. I clicked it on and there it was: the dreaded gray fuzz. You know that gray fuzz: the cable system was down. So I watched the fuzz for a while. When the TV isn’t working you may get the feeling that the universe had just become a buzzing gray fuzz, at which point you either get religion or call the cable company to find out what’s happening.

Having never quite grasped the concept of religion, I called the cable company. After hitting number three on the phone for customer service, a young woman answered with a cheery “How can I help you?” I told her that my cable seemed not to be working. She asked if I lived in Monroe. I said that I did. She then apologized and told me that the cable service in my area was temporarily out.

Then I got curious, and asked her how most people treated her when they called because of an outage. She laughed and said, “It’s terrible.” People call and abuse her. Apparently, they treat this young woman as though the whole thing is her fault — and even if it isn’t directly her fault, they expect her to get out there and personally fix it. I told her that she was doing a fine job and thanked her for giving me the information I needed. She told me that I had just made her day.

Now this woman is just doing her job, which apparently is to be on the front line of abuse by irate customers who need someone to blame when things go wrong. How often have you seen a clerk at a store berated by a customer for something that was not that clerk’s fault?

The other day while driving, I made a left-hand turn and a guy in another car — which was where it shouldn’t have been—must have thought that I intended to cut him off, because he snarled at me and gave me the finger.

A few days ago, I was talking to a young man and asked what he thought about people. His response was, and I quote, “All people suck.” Though I don’t agree with the sentiment, I had to appreciate its clarity and succinctness.

Anyway, that conversation with the woman at Cablevision got me thinking: we all have a tendency to blame others when things go wrong. It starts when somebody does or says something that causes us pain or fear. Our response is to assume that they intended to cause us pain or fear. We impugn their motives and assume that they meant to cause us harm. So, we find a way to attack them, give them the finger — sometimes, in more ways than one. When a relationship goes bad, it has to be the other person’s fault. He or she intended for me to feel bad. Again, we assume a malevolent motive.

Our need to blame when something goes wrong is so deep that we even blame inanimate things. About six months ago, my car blew up. The engine just blew, right outside of Sheridan, Wyoming. There I was on the side of the road, standing over my engine, which was on fire, in the middle of nowhere. I was calling my car names as though it had decided to self-destruct just to make me miserable. After a while, I decided that it wasn’t my vehicle’s fault, so I went straight to blaming the whole state of Wyoming. From there, I went to where we all go when all else fails: I blamed myself. I must have done something wrong, because there has to be somebody at fault here.

It wasn’t my fault either, and by the time my car had been towed to a motel where I was about to live for a week, I had decided that my car blowing up really did come under the heading of “stuff happens.”

At the time, I was driving to Seattle to be with a woman. So, I got to the motel room and called her to tell her that my car blew up in Wyoming. Her response was to treat me as though it was all my fault, as though I was ruining her day by having my car blow up and then calling her to tell her about it. Needless to say, that relationship didn’t go anywhere good.

My car got repaired, but that relationship just joined my backpack full of failed relationships. It didn’t work out, and in the end it wasn’t anybody’s fault. The part of me that seeks an explanation for everything would like to blame her for the failure in the same way that I wanted to blame my car for blowing up. But the wiser part of me knows that both this woman and my car were doing the best they could, and sometimes things just don’t work out. I’d like you to know that I have completely forgiven my car. I’m still working on the woman, but I’ll get there.

So many relationships start going bad because folks start blaming each other. We assume that the other was intentionally trying to do something to us. Man, that one will get you in trouble because it’s so rarely true.

Rather than see others as the innocents that we generally are — all of us just trying to get through this grand catastrophe — we begin to see others as a vast network of suspects conspiring to step on our toes, cut us off on the highway, disrupt our cable service or, in one way or another, thwart our lives. So, we yell at the poor woman at Cablevision, give the finger to that other driver or beat up a loved one. We make assumptions about everybody’s intent.

What is this capacity for thinking the worst about other folks rather than the best all about?

This is always an interesting time of year for me. December has its own unique facets, other than “shop ‘til you drop” week, in the Judeo-Christian world. During winter, the days get shorter and the nights get longer. (Being single, longer nights hold no promise of anything, but that’s another story.) Christmas approaches; it’s a time that symbolizes rebirth and redemption. For many, it is a time to remember the birth of the son of God or, for those like me, one of history’s greatest teachers: the rabbi Jesus Christ.

So as we go about growling at everybody in the mall, is it possible to remember the golden rule? Can we choose compassion over aggravation? Can we accept that each moment offers us a choice between love and fear, and that it’s a choice each of us is capable of making?

As the New Year approaches, we think about how we hope it will be and how we would like ourselves to be. We make resolutions that we never keep, and basically hope for the best. For me, it is a good time to reflect on who I am, how I’ve been, and what kind of person I’d like to be.

Have you ever done that? Have you ever stopped blaming the world and others, including yourself, long enough to reflect on who you are and how you would like to be?

During this time of rebirth, it is possible to contemplate one’s own growth, changes and healing. We can all change. Humans are unique in that we have the ultimate ability to decide who and how we want to be.

This isn’t to say that change comes easily, not even desired change. Change is hard, and usually takes some kind of heavy-duty catalyst. The story of Jesus offers us all a lesson. He went from being just another carpenter to become a spiritual leader. To do this, he disappeared into the deserts of Judea for more than a decade and confronted who knows what. One thing is certain: he came out a changed man.

I also like that story written by Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol.” Here, our hero is a man named Scrooge, a cheap son of a gun who blames everything on everybody else. This was one unhappy cat. His story is about the human capacity for change. In the case of Scrooge, he is confronted by three ghosts, each of which takes him on an excruciatingly painful journey into his own soul. He emerges from these arduous journeys as a changed man: kind, generous and capable of joy.

The story of Buddha has a similar theme. Buddha was a prince raised in great wealth and privilege. His parents intentionally kept him from knowledge of the world. One day, he snuck out of the palace grounds and saw what had been unknown to him: the shocking truth of human suffering. He started to question who he was, and decided that he wanted to know the truth. He left the palace and spent years exploring himself, suffering and witnessing the sufferings of the soul, until at last he changed into a compassionate and enlightened being.

Change is hard in great part because no matter how much we desire it, deep inside there is always a tremendous, organic resistance to change. Our organism, our ego structure, our deeper sense of self doesn’t greet change well. It interprets change as death. When we change, something has to die in order for something to be born.

In order to see the world differently, we have to see ourselves differently. To see the inherent decency of others is to find it in ourselves.