I’ve been having conversations with folks recently about responsibility and blame. Mostly these discussions happen around the painful moments in people’s lives. In our culture, the prevailing belief is we are always and totally responsible for what happens to us. Given that, I guess I should not be surprised when others tell me they know the problem lies with them, or when I find myself saying such things about my own experiences.
The opposing view, just as much a part of the culture although less often acknowledged, is that everything happens pretty much by chance, or conversely, is completely predetermined, and there is not much we can do to affect the trajectory of our lives. One expression of this view was the long-held belief that genes were fate. Of course, genes do play a crucial role in our lives, yet this role turns out to be much more fluid and plastic than first thought. Life experiences, lifestyles, and learning all contribute to how genes are expressed; we are not automatons!
It seem to me the problem is that both these views support the dominant culture’s reliance on blaming. In the dominant view we are each responsible for all that happens to us, good and bad. There is no grasp of the basic concepts of ecology, or any appreciation for the complexities of living as an individual or community. Somehow, magically, everyone can be rich and healthy if the just choose to be; this disregards the fact that we share the world with innumerable other beings, some of whom eat us, just as we consume others. It also ignores the sad reality that our consumptive culture is rendering the planet unlivable for most beings; imagine how much worse things might be if everyone could endlessly consume! (I am reminded of the epic story of Coyotes theft of death, and how s/he brought relief to all Earth’s beings; everyone had previously lived forever in much misery.)
I believe we are each responsible for making meaning from our experiences, for building a sense of self and relationship with others. There is an ancient shamanic idea that we build soul, and the relationships between souls that inhabit our bodies, through our responses to life’s events, that we become Selves though living; this is different from Jung’s much ballyhooed formulation of Individuation. The work of becoming Self incorporates all stages of life, including dying. It is said our task is to gather a basket of rich stories to share with the grandmothers and the Creator after we cross over to the spirit world. I like to imagine sitting by a fire within a circle of teepees, swapping stories with others. I love that in Beaver culture, there are those who are reborn and, as children, sit with their old friends and retell tales of their prior, shared, escapades!
So where does all this leave us? Somehow, in the midst of all the blaming and shaming, we must arrive at a reckoning with the complexity of life in an interconnected universe, the presence of Fate, and the simple imperative that all beings must die, if only to give others the opportunity to try out life on our lovely, magical planet. This view requires us to simultaneous accept whatever responsibility we can for our condition, and to have compassion for ourselves, knowing things are way complex and not always under our control. In the end, we are then left with lives that are rich and meaningful, and with many good stories to share and to bring home to the spirit world.