Taking Responsibility

When I was a very young child (I’m talking really young, age 3 or so), I had a friend named Arthur, with whom I used to get into all sorts of mischief. Whenever Arthur and I got caught doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing, our first response was always, “Dee-Dee did it,” Dee-Dee being my younger sister, Diane, who was about 1 at the time. It was nothing short of preposterous to think she could have done any of what we had attributed to her, but that was our line and we stuck to it, time and time again.

In today’s first Mass reading from Genesis, we hear God accusing Adam and Eve of doing something He had told them not to do. And what is their response? Adam says, Eve did it – she gave me the fruit. Eve says, the serpent did it, he tricked me into eating of the tree.

Whatever else one thinks of the Genesis story, it illustrates a common tendency – finding someone else to blame for what we’ve done. Not taking ownership of whatever our failings and mistakes happen to be. To be sure, there are times when things are not “our fault,” where external circumstances are such we are not responsible for what occurs. Nonetheless, where the first impulse is to blame another, it becomes too easy to avoid taking responsibility for what is really our doing.

I was a debater in high school and my debate coach had many rules, some of which I thought were a bit inane. But one of his rules was one that served us remarkably well. The rule was that we could never blame the judge when we lost a round. We were never permitted to say the judge was biased or made a mistake or any other variation on those themes that might excuse a excuse our losing a ballot.

Now the reality was that there were some really bad judges out there and they sometimes made bad decisions. There were also some judges who were nowhere near objective. (I was once judged in a round by the aunt of my opposing debater.) Nonetheless, his view was that if we started blaming judges for our losses, it would be too easy to get into the habit of doing it, of making excuses. And that habit and those excuses would prevent us from examining seriously what we could have done better.

My coach’s advice was good. And it is something worth taking to heart outside of the context of debate rounds. There are doubtless many things out of our control. But our first line response when we fall short can’t be to find someone else to blame. It has to be to look inward, not to blame or beat up on ourselves. But to simply examine what we might have done differently.