There is a tendency in our society to take credit for our own strengths and blame others for their own weaknesses. Funny how we don't often seem to take credit for our own weaknesses. The really interesting thing is if you are someone who just gave a hearty "amen" to the above statements, you are likely one of the very people who most frustrate me. Often we most enjoy talking about people "taking responsibility for their actions" when it means we, therefore, get the luxury of taking no action. Poor people need to get off their hineys and work harder. Those of us with lesser financial struggles get to bitch about the economy. Why is it the fault of the economy or taxes or the president when the struggle is ours but when it is someone else's struggle they must have done something wrong?
We have such interestingly weird categories for what is to our credit and what is to our shame. Heart disease, back problems, most physical ailments are just things which happen. No one's fault. But if the physical ailment happens to affect the brain this is called mental illness and is somehow an unforgivable weakness. Intelligence is a virtue for which we take credit as though it were a result of some great effort on our part. Lack of financial aptitude is a shameful flaw which should be punishable by starvation.
In reality, nothing is to our credit. Not one thing about your life is something about which you can boast. Theologically, we can see this as we consider God gave us our very existence. God created the world in which we live, the food we eat, the beauty we enjoy, the genes and DNA which make up our bodies. All we have and all we are is a gift. Logically we can see this as we look around the world and consider how many of the realities of our lives are essentailly an accident of geography and where we happened to be born. Tim Minchin makes this even clearer in a graduation speech I watched here (a transcript can also be found here.) He gives nine life lessons which are great and funny but the third is especially relevant. Minchin says:
"Remember, It’s All Luck
You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.
I suppose I worked hard to achieve whatever dubious achievements I’ve achieved … but I didn’t make the bit of me that works hard, any more than I made the bit of me that ate too many burgers instead of going to lectures while I was here at UWA.
Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate.
Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually."
Brilliant. Love it. If we could all wrap our minds around this concept, with whatever capacity our particular sort of brain has, perhaps we could quit casting about blame and turn our energy toward doing something about the problems in our world. In the process we might also increase our empathy for one another.
Maybe even for our politicians. Though, on this particular week, that might be a stretch even for those most strongly gifted with compassion.