Judith Regan, one of the chief architects of the revolting plan to air OJ Simpson’s “theoretical” confession, revealed, during the fracas following her PR announcement, that part of her life’s problem stemmed from her Catholic background. By some kind of weird convolution, she blamed her experience in what she called the “spooky” confessional Box to justify her intent to publish a book and do a Television interview. This intent was so involuntarily disgusting that a huge public ground swell forced cancellation. Obviously, the meaning and purpose of the television presentation and book publishing can be crudely reduced to a bottom line called Money. But Regan, a collapsed Catholic, offered weak justification that her intent was not to make dinero but to force male molesters (in her residual Catholic language) to confession, penance and a firm purpose of amendment of life! This is clearly an example of the very human escape mechanism, called rationalization[i]. But perhaps more repulsive was her immature displacement of responsibility. By using the mechanism of displacement, she could hope that the following implicit claim might be made. If there was any distortion in her plan, one must blame, at least in part, the Catholic Church, not Regan.[ii]
Such displacement is as old as Genesis wherein we read that Adam, when confronted by the Lord for his disobedience, immediately replies that the woman made him do it. It was not his fault. Some one else made him do it. The some one else called Eve when confronted likewise by the Lord, rejects any kind of personal responsibility and claims someone else, the serpent, made her do it. It was not her fault. Don’t blame her. Like the theme of the popular Television show featuring Flip Wilson, the way out is to say “The devil made me do it.” Such a practice is as old as the aboriginal calamity (original sin) whereby the human being has tried (for eons and eons) to avert personal responsibility when faced with the painful consequences of his own making. Blame someone else.
I understand (from personal experience) that Shakespeare is not immediately beautiful and instructive and that usually he takes work. Yet, what can justify such work is the idea that some great thing awaits the one who does it successfully. If one were to glean only one relevant thought from this genius, it would be invaluable. One of my own favorite mantras, based on his work, is from Julius Caesar wherein the lead character verbalizes a fundamental truth of life: “The fault, my dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves…” This message of the Bard is apparently epiphanic to some people. Namely, not only does one waste valuable energy by shifting responsibility from self to others but one stultifies personal growth and character expansion. To place the blame for my failures or unhappiness on my parents or my teachers or my Church or the Government or the environment is to shriek that I am unbelievably immature. Why not blame George Bush for Katrina? That would take a lot of people “off the hook.” Human history is loaded with examples of shifting blame onto others. We all can recall Nero with his fiddle and his cry that the Christians did it! On the contrary, the adult takes personal responsibility for his own life.
It is not sufficiently justifying to say “I was drunk.” Or “I was sick”. Or “It was my other self. I have multiple personalities” “It was not my fault. You can’t blame me.” It is adult and Christian to say “I did it. It was my fault. It was I, no one else.” When he can say: “I take the responsibility for my life. I accept the consequences of my own behavior”, he is growing up. This is more maturational than learning how to blow one’s own nose without Mama’s help!
Even the great Dante in his Divine Comedy reserves some of the lowest forms of Hell for “blamers” by situating them in such a way that they have no one to blame! Imagine that for all eternity they have to take the blame themselves! In the December issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum notes how feverishly New Yorkers (especially at Christmas time) work to avoid taking any kind of responsibility for the sorrow and evil right under their noses in the supreme City of Man. He notes the ever present cell-phone talkers who speak loudly, blotting out all presence around them. He notes the deliberately unfocused stare of the smoker who comes out into the cold for the fix, seeing no one, caring for no one.
It is the same stare one meets invariably on the New York subway. There is no one really around them. They don’t want to see anything unpleasant. For them there is no loneliness or hunger or sadness. Blamers would rather not see the hollowed-eyed, toothless, dirty “man of the street” who despairingly shakes his crummy paper cup in one’s face. Why should he have to notice, he asks, the muggings and the cheating and incivilities and the vulgarities of the City? He is not responsible, he says, for the violence and the drugs and the booze and the porno and the like! He believes since it is someone else’s fault, the ugliness of human despair should be blunted for him! He didn’t cause it! It was not his fault! He has a right to “look the other way.” “That’s just the way things are; there’s nothing I can do; I wasn’t the one who started the fight; it’s not my fault.” In effect, this is self-centeredness and probably nascent narcissism.
However, on other levels, he is right. It was not his fault that Pogroms brutalized Jews in Eastern Europe. It was not his fault that Nazis murdered priests, Gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, Poles. It was not his fault that wealthy Plantation owners in Virginia and South Carolina bought human beings as if they were cattle, enslaved them and at the same time ostentatiously carried Bibles to their Sunday morning services. It was not his fault that authorities trampled on the Catholic Faith in the Inquisition. It was not his fault that crazed fanatics terrified our country on 9/11.
Yet, I wonder how John Donne’s phrase “No man is an island” would factor in here?
If we are all called to help make Christ’s Kingdom come, are we not “blamable” if we do nothing? If we turn away our faces and have cold hearts? Did not St. James castigate those who ignore the needs of others, needs which are not only food and clothing but which also beg for encouragement and acknowledgment and forgiveness and compassion? Wasn’t it he who said “Faith without good works is dead”? It is clear that within the Catholic spiritual system there is no real spiritual life without the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Talk is cheap. I must do something for some one. Some how. Some where. The old Bert Williams song of vaudeville “I ain’t gonna’ do nothin’ for nobody ‘cause nobody does nothin’ for me” belongs on the stage. It has no place in a sophisticated Catholic spiritual life.
Don’t we have enough experience now with distortion and unhappiness to understand the old dictum: “All evil needs to succeed is for good men to do nothing”?
In the words of the street, let’s get to the bottom line! That line is simple. “Whenever you did for one of these, my least brethren, you did it to Me” Perhaps I am to blame if I can’t see the Lord in all the crummy unpleasant things around me. Perhaps I am to blame for being too self involved. Perhaps I am to blame because I failed to pray for the tawdry dimensions of my City. Perhaps I could smile at the angry man mentioned on Bottum’s article. Perhaps I could hail the cab for that tired looking girl with all the packages. Perhaps I could drop a few bob into that guy’s paper cup as he sprawls on the sidewalk. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps, if I can remember the words of my Master even if it is all not my fault. “You did it to me……..”
[i] The imputation of a noble motive to an ignoble action is the core of rationalization.
[ii] Laura Ingram, Constitutional lawyer and Media personality, was mystified, as a Catholic of 3 or more years, at the notion of “spooky”. She experienced no such reaction from her own confessional life.