Who Do You Blame When Life is Breaking Bad?

To blame or not to blame, that is the question. The answer is the difference between a life of resentment, and a life of hard but healing redemption…

blame

Photo Credit: dmdzine via Compfight cc

My son’s eyeglasses disappeared.

It was a warm summer evening, just the right amount of breeze, just the right amount of conversation with good friends, and, as the Tiki torches burned and the burning sun set, I was feeling just the right amount of perfect. Then he told me he couldn’t find his eyeglasses. A quick search of the backyard produced a mangled, canine-scarred pair of spectacles. My perfect night had just gotten hundreds of dollars more expensive, which is to say, no longer perfect.

And I wanted someone to blame.

Because someone is always to blame, right?

So, I began to lecture my son about leaving his glasses lying around, until tears filled his eyes and he reminded me I had told him to leave his glasses in his shoes while on the trampoline so they wouldn’t break while jumping.

My son had done exactly what I asked.

So I reflexively turned on my dog, but I quickly remembered our unspoken agreement: he doesn’t chew anything in the house, and the back yard is fair game. He, too, was doing what I had trained him to do.

My night had broken bad, and there was no one to blame.

When things break bad…

There are many versions of the blame game:

Something goes wrong and spouses start pointing fingers, arguing about who should have done what to prevent it from happening. Others blame an omnipotent but cruel or indifferent God. Some blame a broken universe. Or we blame kids for being kids or friends for being human. And when we can’t find anyone else to blame, we blame and shame ourselves, because someone has to be to blame, right?

Personally, I tend to blame some kind of cosmic fate that is out to get me. I like to stay vague in my blaming place because, if I get too specific, I start to realize how silly all my blaming really is.

When things break bad, it’s awfully tempting to break them worse with our blame.         

Because we don’t know what else to do. If we can’t assign fault to a particular person and then seek apology or justice or compensation, what do we do with all of life’s imperfection and inconvenience and frustration and disappointment and hurt?

If I can’t yell at my son or punish the dog, what are my options?

…sometimes they can be unbroken…

The morning after the mangling I woke up and went out on the same deck. I took the broken glasses and a bunch of tools. I clipped sharp wires, filed down jagged pieces of plastic, tightened loose screws, and padded a missing nosepiece with tape. I set the glasses down on the table and examined my handiwork. They were still a wreck. But they would work until we could buy a new pair.

Mess happens. Like those eyeglasses, life is usually a mostly functional, but broken and imperfect, mess. If we spend it casting blame and finding fault, we never get around to the parts we can actually control.

We never get around to rolling up our sleeves.

We never get around to the unbreaking.

We never get around to the redemption.

…with the tools of redemption.

Life is going to get far more broken and messy and painful than a trivial pair of eyeglasses. Sometimes there is someone to blame, sometimes there isn’t. Either way, our blame usually just breaks it worse. Instead, we can set about unbreaking things with the tools of redemption always at our disposal: grief, grace, invitation, and discernment.

Unbreaking always begins by grieving. In our grief, we draw the brokenness near with stillness, instead of pushing it away with blame. In our grief, we work our way down to the bottom of our hurting hearts and we discover there the foundation of the redemptive life: acceptance.

The paradox of unbreaking is that it always begins by embracing the brokenness. We become open to what is. We stop judging it and start welcoming it. As an opportunity. We touch the truth that life does not have to be perfect or even pleasant to be good and beautiful, even sacred.

Then we put on the eyes of grace—we see into the hidden heart of the people we want to blame. We look past their mistakes and their mess into the center of who they are. We call them forth into the beauty they were made to become and, in doing so, become the beauty we were made to become.

And we call them by inviting them into the unbreaking with us. We undermine our us-versus-them mentality with a you-and-I unity. We become collaborators in the fixing, teammates in the healing, co-conspirators in the radical rebellion of the redemptive way.

I wish I had handed my son a pair of pliers and asked him to join me on that sunrise deck.

Finally, when we’ve traded in blame for invitation, we must be discerning. An invitation to redeem is never about becoming a perpetual doormat. If somebody isn’t willing to join us in the redeeming, we might need to find a different somebody. Because we must surround ourselves with people who have surrendered to the surprising power of grief and grace. We must insist on building marriages and families and friendships and communities

in which the mess is embraced instead of ignored,

in which blame is subordinated to hope,

in which fault is exchanged for fixing,

and in which repair and redemption become the universal language spoken by all.

Life is broken and messy. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, may we join each other, and point them onward.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • ALEJANDRA71

    What happens is that it is easier to find faults than solutions.When looking for faults we will always find guilty.But it seems that if we seek solutions we are a weak,or our society treats us hypocrites and just about to be diplomatic and not fight.
    Or as they think they start wars?.A nation blames the other and we know what happens.A history book is full of examples.

    Regards from South of the world!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Alejandra, I really like this additional nuance, that it’s easier to find fault than solutions. Sometimes, we do just gravitate toward what is easier, don’t we?

      • ALEJANDRA71

        Sure,it is easier to blame and look the other way

  • annie joseph

    thank you Kelly for encouraging me to stop. I am 55 and still looking to blame for lost opportunities.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Annie.

  • Colleen Shields

    The Unbreaking…..sounds like the title to an awesome book about usurping the current dominant global paradigm. Epically revolutionary, indeed.

    • drkellyflanagan

      There’s actually already a great book called Unbroken! Not about global issues, but a great true story of personal survival and redemption. Highly recommend it!

      • Colleen Shields

        Great; I will check it out!

  • Judy Good

    Sometimes we need to change our process so the same bad thing doesn’t continue to happen. We need to determine the cause and correct it without the other person feeling blamed. That is the tricky part for me.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, Judy, this post isn’t meant to be about fatalism. It’s about collaborating in the correcting, instead of getting stuck in accusations. Sometimes, it does take two who are willing to do this.

  • Rev. Bill Gallagher

    Really helpful! Found the last several paragraphs became somewhat vague, a little preachy. Seemed to lose connection with reader/me. Been there. Hard to not be too subjective. Rev. Bill Gallagher

    • drkellyflanagan

      Agreed, Bill! I played with that last section on and off for weeks before finally deciding to just put it out there. I wanted to draw out the tools metaphor without being too esoteric, but could never really find a way that satisfied me. The craft of writing has its humbling moments. : )

  • Rev. Bill Gallagher

    Sorry, I avoided the unbreaking and therefore the redemption and acceptance.
    Still awakening to true me. Blame has been my survival tool for 70+ years. Too hard on myself and others (judgmental). Feeling of not deserving grace/love. My journey of learning/remembering continues. Heading Home.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Beautiful, Bill. And what you say is so true, we are almost always as subtly (or not so subtly) hard on ourselves as we are on others.

  • Benjamin

    Thank you. Just what i needed. It felts like you wrote this for me.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Benjamin.

  • Rev. Bill Gallagher

    Forgot to include photo.

  • Christina Haas

    Yesterday was one of those days I wanted to blame my kids for all the stuff that teenagers do to test us, but where I saw for the first time that it was an chance for me to have an opportunity for growth. I didn’t see it as a “why is this happening to me” thing at all, but a “bring it on” opportunity for me to grow. I went to bed feeling invigorated last night instead of overwhelmed. It was pretty awesome! What you say is true! (not that I doubted it!) Another great and timely post.

    • drkellyflanagan

      That. Is. Awesome. You may have just identified the only thing that can truly prepare us for raising teenager: a “bring it on” mentality!

  • Littletorch

    Love this post! I went through a period of thinking something like this: If you step on my toe, I can come to you and say, “You stepped on my toe.” Then you can say, “Oh sorry, I didn’t see you.” But who am I going to blame and get mad at if it’s hot, or if the washer breaks for the third time in a month? Your article really puts things in perspective.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Right? I’ve spent half my life blaming “something” for rainy days, both literally and figuratively. Time to start dancing in the rain, instead!

  • CJ

    Boy, do I ever identify with this. It makes me wonder if humans will be stuck in the “but it’s not my fault, he/she did it” stage of social and emotional development forever.

    • drkellyflanagan

      The good news is, CJ, we don’t have to get all of humanity out of it; just ourselves!

  • Tracy

    I loved this thought: “Unbreaking always begins by grieving. In our grief, we draw the brokenness near with stillness, instead of pushing it away with blame. In our grief, we work our way down to the bottom of our hurting hearts and we discover there the foundation of the redemptive life: acceptance.”
    But I’m not sure I fully understand it! Any chance you could expand on it a bit, when you have time? Thanks! 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Tracy, this is a great question and one of those things that seemed incomplete about the last section (see my reply to Bill below). I think it has to do with the idea that blame is usually located somewhere in the anger or bargaining stage of grief. This is all still part of the denial that something bad has happened or something important has been lost. If we can move past it, we get to the sad/grieving part of grief, which then leads to acceptance. Only when we have gotten to acceptance are we operating within actual reality and thus can then begin responding to it. I hope that helps a little. Keep dialoguing with me about this. For now, my kids just got home and I’m needed downstairs! : )

      • Tracy

        Ok that makes a lot of sense. Particularly in my case, I blame myself, and perhaps won’t stop until I get to the grief I’ve been covering up in the first place.
        As others have also mentioned, this was timely for me, as well! Pretty amazing how writing works like that sometimes!
        Keep on writing! Vague or not, you ways have something unique and important to share. We appreciate that!
        Feel free to dialogue back when your kids give you a bit of space 😉

  • autumnleaves

    I love the unbreaking and think I have applied this concept often. I struggle with protecting myself from “being burned again”. It isn’t that I blame my spouse but I struggle with not wanting to be hurt again.

  • Shawna Lawson

    This struck a chord with me. I am always searching for someone to blame it usually ends up being me that I blame. But this was something I truly needed to see that sometimes things happen because life isn’t perfect.

  • Loretta St. John

    Good Lord, Dr. Kelly. *doing the happy dance* THIS is beautiful! Man. I can hardly find the words to say how great this is. Thank you, thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Loretta!

  • Emma Roche

    I discovered your work recently and I am going through such a painful time in my life but your writing had brought me such comfort and hope.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Welcome to the blog, Emma. Please feel free to join in the discussion, I think you’ll find this is a really supportive and encouraging community.