Nearly 2,000 years ago the Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote a sentence that anticipates much of what we know of modern psychology:
“To accuse others for your own misfortunes is a sign of lack of education; to accuse yourself shows that your education has begun; to accuse neither yourself nor others shows that your education is complete.”
Most of us would agree with the first part of this statement. Thanks to the insights of Freud and his many successors, we know that many of the really bad things in our lives are mainly caused by our own motives and actions, not by external circumstances or by other people.
But as Epictetus points out, self-accusation is only the beginning of knowledge. While it is good and healthful to know that we ourselves are responsible for much of what happens to us, this admission can become an excuse for persisting in flaws and failures.
People who blame others are clearly immature; but people who constantly blame themselves are indulging in a kind of neurotic pleasure. They do something wrong, feel pangs of remorse, castigate themselves, and then feel purged to go out and repeat the same wrong actions over again.
Genuine education — of the emotions, and not merely of the mind — goes beyond blame. It tries to understand why we do the things we do, for only by understanding them, in their deepest meanings, can we acquire the resolve to alter our patterns of behavior.
Those of us who have wrestled with addictions know what Epictetus was talking about. Blaming others is an obvious means of escaping responsibility. But blaming oneself is a more subtle tactic for refusing to change.
“I can’t help myself,” or “I’m just built that way,” or “It’s in my blood,” are handy verbal excuses to avoid coming to grips with some central problem in one’s personality. They allow you to feel righteously modest while still continuing business as usual.
The human mind is a devilishly complex organism, full of tricks and disguises, which we can begin to see even in a small child, who learns quite early how to win the approval of others and yet satisfy his own desires.
By the time we’re adults, we’ve had a couple decades of practice in the fine art of deceiving others as well as ourselves. But the fact is that we’re not truly grown up until we can accept reality by relinquishing the pleasure of blaming ourselves as a substitute for changing our ways.
Only then is our education complete.
Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel