A massive oil spill pollutes the Gulf of Mexico, but everyone who had a responsibility for preventing such a disaster is pointing a finger at everyone else. Where everyone is responsible, nobody takes responsibility. Financial institutions make such reckless gambles that they nearly destroy the economy, plunging millions of people into extreme hardship, but those who are most culpable of creating the crisis walk away with bonuses. An epidemic of abusive behavior by pedophile priests is exposed, and the church engages more in damage control than in reforming the culture in which these practices flourished. Schools increasingly fail to educate students, but educators blame anyone and anything except themselves. Politicians spend money like drunken sailors with little to show for it but devote most of their energy to blaming other parties or campaigning for more money than to addressing problems that they helped to create. The reaction of the individuals to any mistakes that they make is to point an accusing finger at someone or something else.
Mea culpa – the acknowledgement of personal responsibility or fault – is not in our vocabulary. It has been replaced by excuse-making, buck-passing, and blame-throwing. When nobody admits responsibility for a mistake, mistakes not only are not corrected but tend to be repeated. It’s axiomatic that no problem can be solved until we first identify the problem. However, merely identifying the problem is not enough. Unless we acknowledge our role in creating the problem, our chances of solving it are slim to none.
Rationalizing is the handmaiden of irresponsibility. Convincing ourselves that a problem is not of our creation or is beyond our control is a convenient way to avoid having to do anything about it. Rationalization takes two forms. Either we say we did not create the problem and therefore have no obligation to correct it, or we say we are powerless to do anything about it. This is an odd twist that we give to the line in the famed Serenity Prayer in which we ask for the serenity to accept the things we cannot change. Although we must acknowledge that much in life is beyond our control, acceptance does not mean that we cannot change anything. There is another part to the serenity prayer – “the courage to change what we can.”
Changing what we can is an obligation we all have. We shirk that obligation both when we take the defeatist attitude that we cannot change anything and when we refuse to admit our part in something that goes awry because “it wasn’t our fault.” In many instances, even when something is not directly “our fault,” we may have contributed to the problem by being enablers. We may justifiably point accusatory fingers at the oil companies and lax government regulators for causing environmental pollution, but we are all enablers and therefore at least partly responsible if we demanded more oil, opposed or were indifferent to the search for alternative energy sources, selfishly looked after our own comfort regardless of the consequences, and so on. The person who drives a gas-guzzling SUV may be only .000001% to blame, but that individual is still part of the problem.
Let’s look at this on a smaller scale. On a college campus, several areas are littered with candy wrappers, discarded water and soda bottles, and other trash that is casually dropped there, sometimes within a few steps of a trash container. This is unsightly, but it hasn’t advanced to the point where the campus looks like a garbage dump. So far, nobody pays much attention to the littering. Occasionally, some student organization will launch a campaign to pick up trash, but, within a week, one would not know it had been done because the irresponsible people who drop trash anywhere far outnumber the handful who occasionally clean it up. Most people on the campus probably don’t fall into either group; they simply accept the litter as “the way things are” and ignore it. They are not as responsible for the mess as the litterbugs are, but they aren’t blameless either. Their acceptance of and indifference to the snobbishness of others makes them part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Thus, along with the failure to admit culpability comes the reluctance to say (or do) anything when someone else does something that is unacceptable. We don’t like people who grumble, especially if they’re grumbling about something unacceptable that we do. When they do complain, we respond that we can’t see why they are being grouchy about such a minor matter (thus making them part of the problem). It’s not politically correct to find fault with anything. (Oh, well, we might find fault, but we shouldn’t say or do anything.)
I do not endorse constant fault-finding. I am not suggesting that we should always focus on the negative and spend our lives complaining about everything. I don’t approve of whining. However, critical thinking is essential to progress; without it, we will never correct problems and will not move forward in a positive direction. Critical thinking involves not just the assignment of responsibility but also the acceptance of responsibility when we are, wholly or partly, to blame.
Readers may have noticed an apparent contradiction here. On one hand, we have criticized the eagerness with which people point the blame at others and fail to admit their own mistakes. On the other, we are saying that it is our responsibility to identify problems and their causes, which implies some fault-finding. This is not, however, a contradiction. Identifying the causes of problems and admitting our role in contributing to these problems (mea culpa) are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, if we don’t do both, we shall probably do neither.
Whenever something bad happens, the easiest and most natural reaction is to blame someone other than ourselves. If someone else caused it, it’s someone else’s responsibility to fix it, pay for it, and make sure that it never happens again. We can thus free ourselves of any obligation to do anything; we can also indulge in the luxury of casting ourselves as victims. Our misfortunes are never our fault, we say. They occur because someone discriminated against us, because someone was out to get us, or because we didn’t get the breaks to which we think we are entitled. Even if the lion’s share of the blame or responsibility does rest with someone else, that viewpoint doesn’t solve anything – especially when everyone blames something or someone else and nobody says, “Mea culpa.”
To return to the Serenity Prayer, the first part mentions acceptance of what we cannot change. The largest single item that fits into the category of things we cannot change is other people’s behavior. That’s one reason why finger-pointing doesn’t work. It isn’t likely to change the behavior of the accused; it’s more likely to put them on the defensive. The second part of the prayer mentions the courage to change what we can, and the area in which we can best do this is with ourselves and our actions. The word courage is apt here, for changing our behavior means taking responsibility, even when (or especially when) things go wrong on our watch. That takes courage because it puts the burden of doing something on us.
“Mea culpa” means more than saying, “I’m sorry,” and this may be why we avoid it. It says, “I goofed,” and it implies, “I’ll try to make up for it.” Making up for our derelictions often means changing ourselves, our behavior, and our attitudes. If the people responsible for the oil spill or the recession or anything else that has caused harm merely say, “We’re sorry,” that doesn’t cut it. Indeed, just making reparations after the damage has been done is not enough. If they go back to business as usual, no problem will have been solved. Similarly, individuals who are hurtful, apologize, and continue to hurt others perpetuate the pattern. It is not enough to apologize for our behavior. A true “mea culpa” means taking responsibilty, making amends, and changing our behavior.
Deep down inside we know that admitting our part in a problem implies an obligation to help correct the situation, and this is perhaps why “mea culpa” isn’t in our vocabulary – at least not in any meaningful sense, where it signifies a willingness to do things differently. We have become a very self-centered and self-satisfied people. We cling tenaciously to our personal status quo, and we’re little interested in the “general good” if it interferes with our comfort and convenience. We insist on our “rights,” not considering whether exercising these so-called rights has consequences on others.
We are all aware, or should be aware, that we are besieged with serious problems in a world with many complications and conflicting interests (along with conflicting ideologies). Denying their existence will not make these problems go away. Moreover, saying that we had no part in creating the problems and depending on someone else for fix them is almost a guarantee that they will continue to exist and most likely get worse. If our neighbor’s house is on fire and we watch it burn without so much as calling the fire department because, after all, we didn’t start the fire, the house will burn to the ground – and there’s a good possibility that our house will too or will at least be damaged. Some of us may go even further, watching the destruction and blaming it all on the caveman who discovered fire.
One last thought is appropriate here. “Mea culpa” does not consist only of the admission of being wrong when we are wrong. There are sins of omission as well as sins of commission. Failure to act can often be as damaging as acting badly or foolishly. For whatever reason – sloth, indifference, some philosophical conviction that what will be was meant to be and that it’s “God’s will,” or whatever – we can sit comfortably on the sidelines, watching problems grow and fester. Then we are only spectators in the parade of life, and we have forfeited any right to criticize the marchers or to dictate where they should go.