It’s Not My Fault!

As we age, most of us learn some hard lessons about what we can and cannot control in our lives. Friends die, children suffer, and despite our best efforts, we grow old and weak. The ones of us who make peace with that brutal fact do so by accepting that nothing we can ever do will change the fact that some measure of pain in life is unavoidable. Paradoxically, the ones of us who go on to build rich and fulfilling lives in spite of such a dark and gloomy realization do so by finding and working with the things we can control, and they are more numerous than most of us like to admit.

Life does not neatly divide itself into the controllable and the uncontrollable, however, and this is where we make mischief as human beings. On one extreme, there are those who believe that everything, everything is controlled by their thoughts. Think the right ones and good fortune will come your way as if the whole Cosmos were tuned in to your hyper-positive transmitter. Fail miserably and the explanation is simple–you didn’t really believe it.

Such a vacuous promise sells billions of dollars of books, audio programs, and seminars, but it does little to give people the real tools they need to manage life competently. “Thinking positive” is good advice…for someone wise enough to recognize its limits. For someone who wants to avoid dealing honestly with the harshness of reality, it is an elaborate and expensive avoidance mechanism.

On the other extreme, there are those who see everything as an inevitable consequence of forces beyond their control. They trick themselves into thinking that no matter what they do, the outcome will be the same. Too cynical to live and too cowardly to die, these people are somewhere between life and death. Having confused acceptance with acquiescence, their lives are pathetic and dull.

Not my fault

Most of us wind up somewhere between these two extremes, realizing that we are neither completely in or out of control. We know that friends may die, but that we can help them when they need it. We know that children suffer, but that we can ease their suffering by being good parents. We neither blame ourselves for every indignity visited upon us by fate, nor throw up our hands and let it rule us. We accept that life is largely a balancing act.

The culture in which we live can make that balancing act easier or considerably harder. An individual who asserts him/herself in life despite the cynical and apathetic attitudes of those around him is rare. In addition to coming to terms with the Universe as an individual, such a person must constantly fight through the sticky residue of cynicism that everyone else leaves behind.

Fortunately, some cultures have managed to develop into fertile ground for individualism. The Ancient Greeks celebrated man as a heroic being. Thus was born humanism and a full slate of accomplished thinkers, artists, and statesmen. Unfortunately, those sensibilities lay dormant for centuries until Renaissance thinkers resurrected it.

America’s culture emerged explicitly from the Founders’ Renaissance-inspired thinking. Americans developed a unique culture of independence and self-reliance, and a healthy skepticism of authority. Faced with a frontier that was both inviting and harsh, Americans learned to do whatever it took to survive. In the end, they did much more than survive, turning the United State into the richest nation on Earth. They made something out of nothing and asked for no one’s permission to do so. For the first time in history, a government was formed that explicitly placed the individual at the center of governance.

Early Americans’ fierce sense of independence did not mean isolation. American settlers learned to cooperate. They formed church and community groups, established corporations and small businesses, and grew a bustling economy. While the rule of law was essential to this heroic story, it was not primarily the government that drove the American nation forward. It was the fierce independence of the individuals who dared leave the comfort of civilization for the terror and promise of a new land.

The greatest curse of humanity, it is sometimes said, is success. And so it was with our unique culture. As wealth grew, so did the number of people who could survive off the daring and initiative of others. As industrialization created more jobs, fewer people had to establish their own enterprises. As government asserted itself beyond the functions described in our Constitution, economic freedom dwindled. People came to see economic enterprise as permitted by government, not merely supported by the enforcement of private contracts and property rights. We slowly drifted away from the celebration of the individual to skepticism and fear about independent thinkers and doers. Worse, we slouched toward finger-pointing as the excuse of choice. From blaming sexual harassment on “lack of training” to obesity as a disease, we have become a nation of reflexive blame-shifters.

Aside from the corrosive effect of this kind of thinking on the individual soul, it sets up a political dynamic that encourages tyranny. If I am not to blame, then someone else or some group of people must be. Ergo, get the government to take care of it. And it gladly will, judging from its growth in the last several decades.

And all this ends where? In a giant game of “It’s Not My Fault!” People who abdicate responsibility for their own lives eventually seek out a savior–someone who can make it all better. Not realizing that the same remedies applied ferociously to their perceived tormentors will soon be applied even more ferociously to them, they welcome the thought of giving someone power to make things right. Congress is stubborn? Bypass it with regulations. People in places you never visit want to keep their guns? Write them off as nut cases and make it near-impossible to own or carry one. Have trouble resisting sugary drinks? Limit their size by law.

Human beings did not evolve to live free of responsibility–survival requires it. The only question is whether we as individuals accept it or abdicate to someone or something else. With each passing day, we see more clearly just what that means. It means more watchful eyes on us (read “spying”). It means more regulations with the force of law handed down by unaccountable bureaucrats (think “EPA”). It means having our speech stifled by political hacks (bet you can come up with those initials). Every failure to assume responsibility as individuals is answered by a trimming of our freedom.

The only reason we have survived thus far with this deteriorating sense of individual responsibility is that politicians can delay the inevitable. A person who blames others constantly is not likely to ask whether the pension he/she is promised will ever materialize, whether anyone will be willing to deliver the health care he/she is assured, whether there will be enough businesspeople left to provide the bounty they have assumed is their right. The mindset of a blamer is far too shallow for that. Thus legislators live off the fat of voters’ stupidity and shortsightedness.

These are the first of many dark days to come. People who have convinced themselves that everything bad is someone else’s fault do not suddenly repent and start to take responsibility. Instead, they sic the hounds of tyranny on the providers until no one is left to provide. We are a nation about to reap the harvest of laziness and complacency. May we atone for our sins gracefully. And quickly.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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