Today’s post is from returning guest author Mathew Knudson, a student, tutor, and RA at Temple University who is currently majoring in Economics and Mathematics. You can contact him here and connect with him on LinkedIn here. View his previous post on the Praxis blog.
“But it wasn’t my fault!” is perhaps one of the most often used excuses in the English language. If successfully argued, it absolves the user of any blame for the resulting situation, whatever it may be. Since we like to think of life as being fair, once we’ve made the conclusion that something isn’t our fault, we believe that we shouldn’t be the ones who have to do something about it; after all, that would be “unfair.” The person or force responsible should have to fix it! And if that force is nature or bad luck, or that person can escape justice, then we should simply wallow in self-pity.
This attitude of innocence, were it prevalent earlier in human history, would have us still living in caves and throwing rocks. Consider the most powerful external force humanity faces: nature. Every day, nature crushes us with waves, rattles us with earthquakes, kills us with ice, fire, heat, cold, drought, torrential rain, and constantly seeks to disrupt our best laid plans. Should a tree fall on your house and crush it, no one would “blame” you. But imagine if we used that reasoning to say “well, the landscapers said that tree is a threat to my safety, but since it’s not my fault, why should I have to deal with it?” Most of us recognize that this petulant attitude will end with a crushed house the next time a storm comes through, and we should do something about the tree, at our own expense, to ensure that our house is not crushed. In short, we empower ourselves over nature by doing something about it by taking responsibility even though it isn’t our fault. We didn’t put the tree there, or destroy its roots, or summon up the storm; we are not to blame for the tree’s falling. But we realize that we can act to protect ourselves anyway, so we cut the tree down.
We do not wait for nature to change its ways and simply lament how hard life is until that day comes. We build dams, we build houses, we create farms; it is not our “fault” that rivers flood, or that the elements tear at us, or that we need to eat food. But we take responsibility, and in doing so, empower ourselves over one of the mightiest forces known to man. We take ownership of our lives, of our outcomes, and in doing so, take power over our own lives.
Yet, increasingly, as we concern ourselves more and more with fairness and inequality, we have failed to see the connection between these natural forces and the social forces we encounter in our daily lives. We’ve come to the conclusion that if we can make the argument successfully that our lot in life is not our “fault,” then we are similarly not responsible for fixing our problems. We believe that we should instead be compensated by the wrong-doers, who should bear the burden of setting things right. I will not argue about the validity of the framework of social justice or of justice in a philosophical sense. Let us take it to be a complete and certain truth that there are many millions who are at the bottom not due to their own fault, but due to systemic injustice. Now what? Should we hope that suddenly the powerful oppressors who put them there will have a change of heart? Should we wallow until these forces somehow change? And if we’re busy wallowing, who will change them?
Instead, let us take a sober look at the world, and say “Yes, it’s unfair that I’m here. But I can still be responsible for my own life, and take ownership for what happens to me.” This sounds very unfair; why should the victim of an injustice have to be the one to fix things? Because waiting on the wicked to become pure is like waiting for nature to stop causing droughts, floods, and blizzards. If you see something that bothers you, if you experience things that upset you, if you witness an injustice that inflames you, your first question shouldn’t be “whose fault is this?” It should be “What can I do about it?” Maybe it’s as simple as donating to an organization that does work in that area. Maybe it’s volunteering your time, or being a strong friend to those in need, or working overtime to fix your co-workers’ mistakes so that the project still gets done on time. But once you have decided to take responsibility for what happens in your life, and to think not of fault and guilt but of possibilities and options, you have taken power over your future.
Taken to its extreme, the attitude of innocence would have us view each other as molecules in a beaker, floating around, simply reacting to whatever we may bump into, at the mercy of chaos and fortune. It is the complete abdication of power over your life, in exchange for the complete absolution of blame. But taking the view of responsibility and ownership, even to a moderate degree, empowers us to make change without waiting on the good-will of others and allows us to defy that which keeps us down. It is the attitude that we have applied to nature, and in doing so, we have wrought a world of comforts and conveniences that our forebears couldn’t imagine. It brought skyscrapers and computers and medicine from wilderness.
Imagine how your life might change if you spent less time thinking of who to blame and more time thinking on what to do. What heights could you soar to?
The only way to know is to leave the safety of the ground.