I missed my very first payment of rent at my new apartment. Imagine my surprise when I found a notice to vacate on my door. I quickly fixed the problem with the property managers; apparently the auto-pay system didn’t go through, despite my double-checking all the numbers. They forgave the late fee [“just this once!”] and moved on.
I didn’t move on, at least for twenty or so minutes. I felt mildly guilty and very embarrassed. What a way to start living in a new apartment complex! I was blaming myself for a mistake anyone could have made.
For what, exactly, am I blaming myself for, I had to ask? A typo? A computer glitch? Forgetting to check my calendar?
A lot of my sense of guilt has come from the sorts of experiences like these I’ve had in my past. In my mind’s eye, I grew up in a culture that was oriented toward blaming others for problems — and as a result, I gained the habit of blaming myself for the tiniest of infractions. If I blame myself, I reasoned, I won’t be blamed so often by others.
How wrong I’d been on that.
I’ve been blamed for a lot of things, mostly things that I had no control over. As a nine year old boy at school, I saw some other kids run away from the window of our second story classroom. Curious, I glanced out the window only to see a teacher down below suddenly accusing me of who-knows-what. My first detention ever.
Decades later, in a full time job, I highlighted a potential problem in the computer system and proposed a solution. “No, we’re not going to implement that change. We have better things to do.” Mind you, they hired me for exactly this sort of troubleshooting.
A few months later, the system crashed; the culprit? The very problem I had pointed out. And then I was promptly blamed for the crash.
“We can’t have you making that mistake again”
“What? Not forcing you to make changes?”
“Yes, pretty much.”
Problems arise, mistakes happen, and both people and things break. That doesn’t mean that there is always a culprit, or that anything was done with mal intent. More likely a problem arose out of ignorance or misperception. Keeping that in mind, I think it’s important for us to not blame others so often and so readily. Blaming others has an impact that we might not see immediately. Hold blame over a child, rightly or wrongly, and that will last into their adulthood. Blame an adult, and problems won’t get solved and resentment will build. In most social situations, I feel we often blame people to resolve our innate sense of justice. But where is the justice in making someone feel bad?
In another job, earlier in my career, I made a very, very costly mistake. I took full responsibility for it, and was sure I was going to be fired. I went to my boss’s office and begged for his forgiveness and understood if he needed to let me go.
All he said was “Don’t be sorry. Just don’t do it again.” Those were some of the most profound words I’d ever been told. He didn’t blame me for anything. He just wanted me to learn a lesson. It changed a lot in my career. I was super-cautious about the future actions I took, because I didn’t want a repeat of such a massive, near career ender, but I also felt more emboldened. I wasn’t sorry for myself. I felt I could actually take more risks in some ways. I just needed to be more careful as I took those risks.
That comment went through my head again today, all these years later, as I pondered the rent problem that arose. I can’t feel sorry for myself; I didn’t do anything even remotely as bad as I did on the job back then. Nothing was truly on the line today; the system I expected to work a particular way hiccuped and I failed to pay the rent on time. I fixed it, have a backup plan, and now I’m moving on.
Life is complex. We can’t have a fix for everything; we can’t prevent all the mistakes, large and small from happening. However, we can take the time to restrain ourselves from blaming others too readily and especially to not blame ourselves for the act of being human. Instead, we should correct what we can and move on. We learn, we adapt, we improve, and we make more mistakes because… Life.