The "Blame Game"
April 30 of this year will mark U.S. President Barack Obama's 100th day in office. Obama came to Washington on a platform of "change" and "hope"—but he is certainly not the first to build a campaign around upbeat-yet-vague themes. Older readers may remember that "Morning in America" was the theme of hope and change that brought Ronald Reagan to the White House 28 years ago.
One other common point these two very different administrations share is that their supporters are often quick to blame the previous administration for all that ails the nation. Throughout the Reagan administration, problems were "Jimmy Carter's fault" while successes were Reagan's. Throughout the administration of George W. Bush, problems were "Bill Clinton's fault"—but successes were credited to Bush. Now, facing difficult times in the opening days of a new administration, how often do we hear failures excused as "George Bush's fault"?
Blame is all around us—not just in politics, but in business, at school, and among family members. Perhaps even today you have either participated in—or heard someone—blaming others for a mistake, fault or error that has caused inconvenience or pain.
But just because blaming is so common, does that mean it is good—or even necessary?
Imagine that when you come home from school one day, you notice that your brother is having a snack and watching television, and your dog is not in the backyard where he should be. You also find your brother's baseball glove on the grass by the backyard gate.
Putting these facts together, you quickly conclude that your brother absent-mindedly let the dog out of the gate. You then launch into a tirade that escalates into a full-fledged argument. Your brother protests that he did not let the dog out, but you ignore his protests and insist that he is to blame. Finally, he storms out of the room, refusing to talk to you for the rest of the day.
What happened here? The facts were indisputable: a missing dog and a baseball glove by the gate. However, the blame began when your mind drew conclusions based on the facts. Your train of thought may have been, "My stupid brother let the dog out the gate! Why is he always so careless and irresponsible? Doesn't he care? He's in the house watching television while our dog is running loose in the neighborhood!"
Yes, the seeds of blame are planted by what we see happening, but they become full-grown in our reaction to what we perceive. When that reaction is fueled by hurt and negative emotions, our response can turn toxic. But will your hurt bring the dog home any sooner? Will blaming your brother help the two of you find the dog and put away the glove where it belongs?
When we are tempted to lash out and blame others, we should first ask ourselves: What will the blame accomplish? Will it heal the situation, or will it prolong the hurt? (James 5:16).
Blaming others is a universal human tendency. In fact, the Bible shows us that the first human beings assigned blame after disobeying God's instructions in the Garden of Eden. After Adam ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God asked him, "Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?" (Genesis 3:11). Adam's first reaction was to blame his wife: "Then the man said, 'The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate'" (v. 12). Not only did Adam attempt to deflect the blame onto his wife; he even seemed to implicate God in his answer!
The blame game did not end there. After hearing Adam's response, God asked Eve, "What is this you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate" (v. 13).
Blame is as old as the human race. But it did not help Adam and Eve. Does it help you and me?
Certainly, other people's actions affect us. Our parents have made choices that have helped to determine who we are. When friends accept or reject us, we may feel constrained to conform, or change, or stand apart, in ways that may sometimes feel uncomfortable. Teachers, employers, the government—all have an influence on our lives, and can give us excuses to blame our circumstances on other people. There is plenty of blame to go around! (Romans 3:23).
We all make mistakes. Some of our mistakes are small and go almost unnoticed. Others can do harm to many people around us. To prevent future mistakes, it can be wise and helpful to identify what caused the mistakes, so we can avoid repeating them in the future. But finding a solution is not the same as assigning blame. Can we change the past? No! But we may be able to understand what happened, and be able to improve our future as a result. You could blame Adam and Eve for "making the mess we're in"—but would that help you improve your own life? Instead of reacting with anger about the past, there comes a point where the best step we can take is to understand how we can make things better now. It may be hard to let go of our anger at someone who caused a problem we are now facing—but ultimately this is the only way to grow, and to move toward resolving the problem.
Is this just a lot of talk? In the real world, what happens when we refrain from assigning blame? The Apollo 13 lunar space mission, launched 39 years ago this April, shows us an excellent example of how NASA (the U.S.'s National Aeronautics and Space Administration) used this principle to save lives and resolve a dangerous situation.
Apollo 13 was en route to the moon, two days after its April 11, 1970 launch, when a Service Module oxygen tank exploded, forcing astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert to take refuge in the smaller Lunar Module for their return trip to Earth. However, there was one major problem: the Lunar Module was designed to sustain two people for two days, not three people for the four days it would take to return to Earth.
The 1995 movie Apollo 13 dramatized events of this remarkable mission, as NASA's Mission Control team worked with the crew to bring them back safely. One scene shows an argument flaring when astronaut Haise blames their predicament on crew member Swigert. Mission commander Lovell quickly shuts down the argument with his response: "All right, look. We're not doing this, gentlemen. We're not going to go bouncing off the walls for ten minutes 'cause we're just going to end up right back here with the same problems—trying to figure out how to stay alive!"
Lovell's words make a crucial point. No matter how we got here, our circumstances are what they are, and that is what we need to focus upon. Assigning blame changes neither our circumstances nor our objectives. It is interesting to note that the real-life Jim Lovell denies that the argument portrayed in the film actually took place. The Apollo 13 astronauts, he says, did not waste precious time on blame. In this case, the "blame game" was a Hollywood dramatization. Assigning blame may indeed be dramatic, but it does not provide solutions. Whether you are leading a nation, finding a lost dog or flying a damaged spacecraft back to Earth, the "blame game" is a wasteful—and sometimes dangerous—distraction (Proverbs 10:12).