No Blame in the Universe

Since blame is focuses in the past, and feeds on a vulnerable sense of power and goodness, it can be helpful to take the position that there is no place for it in our lives.

My teenage niece and nephew were using each other hard, responding to their upsets in a difficult situation by blaming each other. While the tone was gratingly familiar, I had a new perspective. For months I’d been waging a campaign to get my own teenager to buy the concept of “no blame in the universe”. As he resisted and we joked together, I’d had lots of time to ponder the nature of blame.

I was struck with how it is always focused on the past, on water that is already under the bridge, on the part of reality that can’t be changed. It seems to grow from powerlessness. If we can’t address a situation, if we can’t make it right, then one fall-back is blame. It’s our way of saying that somebody should be doing something, and somebody isn’t. Blame also seems to grow from a lack of confidence in our goodness. If only I (or that other person) were better in some way, we wouldn’t be having this problem. To decrease blame, therefore, we need to increase a sense of power and goodness. As parents, we should know this territory well; one of our prime jobs is to model for our children just that confidence in human power and goodness.

Self blame in our children may be the easiest to address. No one likes to see a child habitually taking on blame. Our impulse to say, “Hey, it’s not your fault” to our children is an indication of our intuitive understanding that blame is a flawed concept. We get to remind them that people make mistakes and there’s always an opportunity to correct them, that they are totally good and we love them without reservation, that there are some things beyond our control, that other people’s upsets are not their fault. (Would that we could remember this reality so well when we are inclined to blame ourselves!)

Although it’s not as clear-cut, we can see the lack of power and the urge to protect a vulnerable sense of goodness that gets children blaming each other. (“It’s not my fault, it’s yours.”) They try to deflect blame from themselves by directing it at others. It’s like the game of “hot potato” where you pass the potato on to the next person as quickly as possible, not wanting to be the one who ends up with it in your hands.

Clearly this is what my niece and nephew were doing. Their behavior was exhausting to be around, but I couldn’t leave, and I knew that any criticism would be perceived--rightly--as blame. So I took the newsy, conversational approach and told them about my campaign with their cousin. No blame in the universe? This was a totally new idea to both of them. They were intrigued. They questioned me. They challenged me. We talked about the difference between making mistakes and being to blame, how you can take responsibility without having to shoulder blame. They brought up extreme examples. I was firm in my position but relaxed, assuming that they wouldn’t really buy it, but hoping it would be useful for them to have somewhere in their consciousness, as an internal protection against those ugly and loaded assaults.

When I saw them a few days later, however, they were still talking about it. Not only that, but they seemed to have bought the concept as a working principle! On a hike with their family in a remote area, my nephew inadvertently knocked our roll of toilet paper into the water. He made some exculpatory comment. The blame was immediately ready on my niece’s lips. “Well, it’s your fau...” She stopped literally in the middle of the word, reorganized herself and said carefully, “You made a mistake and the toilet paper is soaked.”

With that rephrasing, the escalation of blame stopped cold. I was amazed at the transformation. All we were left with was the simple reality of the situation, which we proceeded to handle. The we went on together to have an excellent, blame-free adventure.