We all have our habits, our mechanical avoidances of the real world. And that’s one very good reason why this world of ours is in chaos: no-one’s choosing, to a large extent no-one’s even looking. We’ve all been had by the senses taker. In that sense, everyone – myself as well as others, others as well as myself – is to blame for this mess.
But even if everyone is to blame, the only person’s habits we can change directly are our own. So that’s the place we need to start: looking at how we interact with other people’s habits, other people’s choices.
“You can’t get there from here”
By being stuck in habit, we choose not to choose: we give away our power of choice, and with it any real control over our lives. So if we’re going to reclaim the power of choice in our life, we first have to recognise how we give it away – and how others have been all too keen to encourage us to do so. We’ve all done it: we’ve all had to, to exist in any kind of social environment.
The cultures we’ve grow up in – family, school, religious background, economy and so on – have all had definite ideas about habits that were, they said, good for us; and others which were definitely bad. A maze of rules, instructions, implications: “Little children should be seen and not heard.” “You ought to make way for your elders and betters.” “You mustn’t contradict the teacher.” “Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and honour His commandments.” Many, many of them, over many, many years.
Some of the pronouncements are just plain daft: “You can’t get there from here”, someone once told me. But they still have their effects, especially if we were told them repeatedly in childhood.
|For most of my life I’ve been frightened of police, or almost anyone in uniform. There’s never been any obvious reason: in fact most of my interactions with police have been humorous or bizarre rather than threatening! Eventually, though, I traced it back to something my grandmother used to say to me as a toddler: “Now you must be good: because if you’re a naughty child, a policeman will come and take you away and he’ll never bring you back!” Trivial enough, innocuous enough: all Grandma wanted to was keep us kids quiet for a while. But at some level I seem to have believed it in this absolute sense – “he’ll never bring you back!” – for the whole of my life. The fear has become compulsive, an unconscious habit – even though at no time has it had any true connection with reality.
Can you think of similar examples in your own life: childhood commands that you’ve discovered you still find yourself following compulsively, regardless of whether they’re appropriate?
As children, we tend to believe that adults are all-powerful and all-knowing. Somewhere deep down, part of me still seems to believe that those childhood instructions are true – no matter what my senses and my memory may show me. So it takes us a long time to recognise just how many of those rules are not so much fact, as someone else’s opinion: no more than their point of view. But not necessarily ours… that’s what’s important for us to understand. And, often, it’s not been good for us at all, though often good for the person who wants us to accept statements like those as rules, as habits for life. There’s a lot of emotional advantage to the teacher if I accept that I mustn’t contradict: his authority is never challenged, he’s always certain of his superiority. But unless I can challenge him, I cannot learn anything more than his point of view; and neither, for that matter, can he. With these arbitrary ‘laws’, we all lose in the end.
To learn, we need to be able to question anything and everything, before it gets frozen into the robotic state of habit. But if we’re not clear about what we want, about what our own rules and understandings are, there’ll be no shortage of people to take advantage of that confusion and take the power that we give away: as Joan Armatrading put it, “You gotta be yourself – be more like I tell ya”. If ‘myself’ is defined by what other people want, I’ll end up, by my own non-choice, as a servant, a slave: I’ve done that often enough in my life, and it’s not a good idea…
Most of these external rules that are now habits, though, we learnt at school, or even earlier: so how were we to know then how to choose? After all, we were only children at the time. True: but I’m not a child now – despite the cultural pressures on me, or on us all, to remain children for life. I can observe; I can watch for clues. And the most important clue is in the way these disempowering ‘rules’ are phrased. Almost always they’ll contain certain ‘magic’ words: ‘must’, ‘ought’, or ‘should’. Or ‘can’t’ – “you can’t get there from here”.
|“You ought to do this…” “You must do that…”, “You shouldn’t do this…” “I wouldn’t do that if I were you…” Think of some examples of these from your own life: do you recognise how they disempower you, how we give our power away when we accept them? How do you feel about that?
And think of some examples of how you’ve given these kind of ‘rules’ to others: how do you feel now about having done that? Can you see why you used these phrasings?
Phrases like this are meant to entrap, to bind, to enslave: words as subtle chains. When I look back and see how people have done this to me again and again throughout my life, I get angry – very angry. How dare they do this to me!
Then I remember that I’ve done it to others, probably just as much: and I then feel foolish, a child caught in the act.
And in both cases I’ve chosen to do it, chosen to accept it: a habit of enslaving, a habit of enslavement. Why?
Tyrant and victim
The simple answer is fear. Lots of it. Fear drives us all, whether we recognise it or not. It’s fear of uncertainty that pushes us into developing the security-blanket of habit in the first place. And it’s fear of others that leads to this maze of ‘musts’ and ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’: I don’t have power over others, but if I can ensure that those others are not powerful either, they can’t threaten me. Not so much power over others, as power under: a systematic habit of disempowerment. So I’ll tell them they should do this, so that it doesn’t threaten me; and they’ll reply that I ought to do that, to make sure that my existence won’t threaten them. What they’re actually afraid of may have nothing to do with me, in fact may well be linked to long-forgotten childhood fables – “if you don’t behave, the bogeyman will get you!” But the fear is real, and acted on accordingly: “you mustn’t come near me”, “you shouldn’t do that”, and so on. You can’t beat a childhood monster – but you might be able to trap it in a web of words…
The end-result is that no-one is powerful (or rather, only those people outside the reach of a barrage of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ retain their power – and they’re often exactly those who, in the culture, we’d prefer weren’t powerful!). We’re all hopelessly confused by a maze of childhood instructions that have little or no connection with reality. So with no-one able to make a decision, in case it threatens someone else’s fears, we end up with the worst of everything: a kind of lowest-common-denominator of a world.
We seem to live in an all-pervasive atmosphere of fear – a state which, unfortunately, is actively encouraged by most political systems and most of the major religions. But that’s hardly surprising: our religions and politics arise from the same fears anyway. As a result, we tend to fall into a kind of tyrant-or-victim cycle, oscillating between the roles of persecutor and persecuted: individuals, groups, cultures, whole nations – even the God is ultimate tyrant or ultimate victim.
We’d recognise this scenario most often in a physical sense: war, brutality, force, violence. Yet physical assault is, if anything, the rarest form it takes: far more often the true violence is emotional, mental, spiritual. Righteousness that rejects another’s point of view as ‘wrong’ is just as much a form of tyranny as physical violence: “Peace on our terms” is no offer of peace, but a declaration of war; “There is no God but mine” is an assault on the soul; and a come-on followed by a callous rejection is little short of a rape of the heart. Fear leads to righteousness, which itself comes from fear – the fear of uncertainty that leads to the desperate need to control.
|A common form of tyrant/victim violence is the ‘Devil’s Alternative’, the ‘no-win’ – ‘heads I win, tails you lose’. Here’s one friend’s example:
“It started off pleasantly enough: a few of us having a discussion at my home. But one woman failed to get her way, built it up into an argument, and then started yelling at me: ‘Have you got what it takes to be my equal without violence?’ – this being screamed repeatedly just inches from my face, even when I tried to back away from her in the room. If I answered ‘Yes’, she just repeated the question; if I answered ‘No’, she mocked me, and then repeated the question. And all the while the others just stood around in confusion, telling me at times ‘You ought to see her point of view…’ After several minutes of this, with panic rising, I answered her question in what still seems to me an appropriate manner: I slapped her face, once, hard – something I’ve never done before or since. It stopped the verbal assault, of course, but it took me weeks to recover: I felt violated, self-humiliated, all those emotions, the equivalent response to rape – which, in an emotional sense, was exactly what it was. And the woman has usually referred to me since as ‘the man who hit her’ – a man who resorts to violent assault against women, she says. But I’m still trying to work it out: who was the victim; who the tyrant? Who really was the violent one?”
Think of some similar incidents in your own life. Who was the victim? Who was the tyrant? And who was responsible for the incident: who, ultimately, was to blame?
It’s much easier to accept the rôle of victim: we can blame the tyrant then for ‘doing it to me’, we have a reason then for our righteous indignation, our pain, our hurt, our anger. But in fact, if we’re honest, we’ve played both röes, probably equally: victim leads to tyrant leads to victim, an echoing cycle of unclaimed anger. And a victim needs a tyrant just as much as a tyrant needs a victim: in each rôle we’re being dishonest about our true motives – most usually, we’re looking for someone to blame.
No-one seems to choose to be a tyrant, to choose to be a victim: but somehow we all manage to become so. How? Who’s responsible?
Who’s to blame?
Finding on whom to pin the blame is an ever-popular game – a bit like ‘pin the tail on the donkey’. Someone must be responsible: who is it? At the first stage, it’s always someone else, especially if you’re the victim: the tyrant did it to me, the tyrant must be to blame. After all, what they did hurts: I can’t be responsible for that, surely? ‘Round and round in the usual old game; you take the credit, and I take the blame.’ Or is it ‘I take the credit and you take the blame’…? We always prefer to feel that it’s someone else: I always want to say “it isn’t my fault”. That’s the usual perception, anyway: but it’s never quite as simple as that.
|Think for a moment about the chorus to a rather coarse old song:
“It’s the same the ‘ole world over:
it’s the poor what gets the blame,
it’s the rich what gets the pleasure –
ain’t it all a bleedin’ shame?”
It may be true – we could argue about that indefinitely! – but if it is, how did things get that way? Whose fault is it? And would you consider yourself as ‘the rich what gets the pleasure’, or ‘the poor what gets the blame’?
Another ‘solution’ to the issue is to take the whole blame on ourselves: “it’s all my fault”. Sometimes this is a more mature approach, in recognising the choices we do all have in these games; but often it’s a habit of the ‘professional victim’, or someone who’s learned or been trained to be the scapegoat for the family or community. Self-scapegoating is all too common, and unfortunately is encouraged by the Christian tradition – the self-sacrificing urge to emulate ‘the one who dies to take away our sins’. Once the behavior becomes ingrained, it’s a very hard habit to break – and intensely self-destructive. And it’s no more realistic, in terms of finding who’s really to blame, than the more public hunt for scapegoats.
It’s also a habit that others may be keen to encourage – precisely because they can then avoid the blame. In many tyrant/victim scenarios – as in that example earlier – it’s common for the victim to be urged, by others or their own conscience, to take the whole blame on themselves, and ‘see the other person’s point of view’. The victim is not only beaten up – in whatever sense – by the tyrant, but by themself as well! The tyrant’s actions may very well come from their confused response to a maze of childhood ‘shoulds’ and ‘can’ts’ and ‘oughts’, and may well be stuck in depression, paranoia, loneliness or whatever: but it doesn’t help if the victim is made to feel responsible for what is actually the tyrant’s cruelty.
Whatever drives it, that cruelty is still a choice, even if it comes from habit, or from past pain. To be a victim is also a kind of choice, though at the time it’s extremely hard to see how or why. It’s everyone’s choice, everyone’s responsibility – usually through the non-choice of habit. And it does no good to anyone to allow the victim to allow their conscience to tear them apart, if the tyrant is not encouraged to make any comparable move – because today’s victim will often be tomorrow’s tyrant, and so the cycle goes on and on. Eventually, someone does take responsibility enough to face the fears that drive the cycle: and it stops. Suddenly a sense of quiet: no blame. But it’s not easy; it does take courage…
Blaming, whether of self or others, is a peculiarly evil habit: a denial of responsibility, a false separation from reality. It’s not so much that we say “Yes” to the evil, but that we so rarely say “No”. As a habit, we choose by not choosing; we follow the habit of avoiding choice, then look for someone else to blame. But it is still a choice: in a sense, we can’t blame anyone. If we think in terms of wyrd, a life-path as a series of choices, everyone and no-one is to blame. In the complexity of that fabric of interweavings, we all choose, between us, and collectively, to get what we get.
No-one is to blame
The more we look for someone to blame, the further we get from any chance of finding a solution. That’s true whether we tend to blame others, or blame ourselves. The best way to understand this is to let go, let go the control, let go of the anger, the desire for revenge and all those other very real feelings attached to blame: they don’t actually help in sorting things out. Let go, go wider. Be compassionate to ourselves, and to others: we’re all in this mess together. Just accept, gently, that “things are the way they are because they got that way”: once we can start to accept that, we can begin to move onward – and out of this torturous cycle.
|Go back to an example of some tyrant/victim scenario, one where you were (nominally) the victim. Remember the sense of hopelessness, the anger turned in against yourself; feel those emotions again. It’s not comfortable to do so: but do so anyway.
Then, within your memory of that time, think wider, of the overall situation, the choices on the threads of wyrd that have led each participant to that point. What anger is the ‘tyrant’ expressing, is trapped in? What are others around not facing? What are you not facing, to have led you there? And let go, let go…
Now turn it round: choose some incident where you were (nominally) the oppressor, and reconstruct that in the same way. It may be embarrassing, but do it anyway.
And, within your memory of that time, think wider, of the overall situation, the life-path on the threads of wyrd that has led each participant to that point. What anger are you, the ‘tyrant’, expressing, are trapped in? What was the ‘victim’ not facing, to have led themselves there? What are others around not facing? And let go, let go…
Consider it to have been everyone’s choice to be there – often by default, by choosing not to choose; but everyone chose to be there, chose to do what they did there. Everyone is to blame; no-one, individually, is to blame. What difference does this make?
We’re all to blame; so no one is to blame. That’s hard to grasp, in a world in which every effect supposedly stems from a single cause. And even harder to accept! But let go, let go…
Everyone is to blame; so no-one is to blame.
It’s important to recognise that no-one is to blame; but it’s also important first to recognise that that’s so only because everyone is to blame.
Ultimately, there is no blame: the world is as it is because, between us all, we chose it to be so.
The next question is obvious. If we made the world so, and we don’t like it, what are we going to do about it? More to the point, it’s useful to ask ourselves, “what am I going to do about it?” – because the only person we can each change directly is ourselves.