On a sultry afternoon in August, I scooped up an armful of daily newspapers and trudged up to my writing studio to make sense of things: Neo-Nazis brandishing Tiki torches, the circus that is the White House and bitter partisan finger pointing. I must tell you, I see a pattern forming around blame, responsibility and freedom that is a brewing crisis in American identity.
Freedom is an ideal. Responsibility is the social mesh that supports it. Uncoupling the two invites us to start blaming others, rather than reaching for the best in ourselves. I’d like to argue that true freedom and real autonomy are about taking responsibility for who we are.
It is a basic sociological tenet that “who we are” is created in a social context. It follows that human beings are socially created, not prisoners of instinct. In these times, we are using blame to define ourselves. As if who you choose to blame, and for what, signifies something about yourself.
Sigmund Freud said that, “most people are terrified of responsibility.” Blame tempers the terror. When we scapegoat others for societal ills, corruption, and a weakening economy—all things we feel powerless to circumvent, we discharge our anxiety around being responsible for any of it.
Who we are is personal and social. Sociologist Richard Jenkins believed, “Without social identity, there is, in fact, no society.”
Who does it make us when we blame others at work or home for disappointing outcomes?
When we procrastinate?
When we spend time building a case against someone or something rather than rolling up our sleeves and taking action?
It’s up to each one of us to define who we are and what roles we can be counted on to play.
We are responsible for keeping an open mind.
We are responsible for giving constructive feedback.
We are responsible for seeing our gifts and using them.
To muster our faith in the things that we know will grow us into stronger human beings–curiosity, kindness and forgiveness, takes courage. But it also takes practice to fight the impulse to blame.
We can fortify our inner resources through patience and mercy. Or we can neglect them. But who we become is ultimately our responsibility.
The famously productive Michelangelo said, ‘To confide in one’s self, and become something of worth and value is the best and safest course.” It’s worth remembering that defining yourself by who you blame, rather than what you hope for, is destructive not productive.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to be both courageous and clear about who we are choosing to become. Otherwise, we are a culture stuck in the mud of hate spinning our wheels rather than reaching for a better future.