Who Do You Blame When Life is Breaking Bad?

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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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.