Monday, August 27, 2012

The Fourth C: Don’t Condemn —Elul 9

Don’t complain. Don’t criticize. Don’t compare. We’ve reflected on these three. What about that last one, Don’t condemn?

Condemnation, too, comes all too easily to us, especially if you grow up in a household of condemnation and blame. Someone is unhappy? There must be something wrong and there must be someone to blame for that wrong causing the unhappiness, that sense of not-rightness. Once blame is assigned, a sense of “rightness,” “all’s well with our world” is restored.

The process here is similar to that when people criticize others. They feel insecure in their lives, their possessions, their choices, their being, so they put others down to give themselves a sense of security that comes from a feeling of superiority: My life, my possession, my choice, my being is better than theirs. When people condemn or judge or blame others, they often do so out of insecurity and a fear of their own unworthiness or fear of being condemned as wrong themselves. By condemning others they shift their insecurity and fear into the false certainty of superiority in their goodness: That one is not holding fast to the right order of things, not playing by the rules, not living or thinking or believing right, but I am!

An example: I’ve often been struck by how quickly people leap to blame the victim, myself included. Once, a student of mine reported she had been attacked on a summer day by a man running toward her on a jogging path, wearing a ski mask. When she ran past them, they turned and attacked her with a knife. My first response was horror and sympathy mixed with this thought: She should have known that a man wearing a ski mask in the summer was up to no good. Within seconds I realized my error born of my fear. Hearing her story made me aware of how vulnerable I was as a woman, every day, doing everyday things. To push aside this fear, I blamed her for the attack, which is to say, I constructed a world in which I would never be attacked in this way; for I would never have but myself in that position; I would have known right away this man was trouble and run.

I was reminded of this recently when I read my neighborhood blog. A man tried to rob another man of his iPad in broad daylight at a bus stop, the man gave chase, and the would-be robber beat him, but never got the iPad. People were quick to weigh in with their opinions on what the man should have or could have done to avoid this. What was he doing reading his iPad in public? many asked. Blaming the victim. Why? Because they are afraid this will happen to them when they are waiting for the bus on walking down the street. They want to reassure themselves that it won’t, so they tell themselves this story: that man was attacked because he was waving his iPad around in the face of a bull, but I would never do that, therefore I won’t be attacked, therefore I am safe in my neighborhood. This is similar to the way we used to (and still do, unfortunately) blame women who were raped on the street or date-raped: she was wearing provocative clothing, but I dress modestly; she gave her date confusing signals or she was drunk, but I’m always clear about what I want and I don’t drink.

We do this with people who are poor or homeless also. (By the way, William Ryan’s study of poverty in America, Blaming the Victim, is still a good read.) Blaming the victim is the story we tell ourselves to give ourselves the illusion of security and safety in what is a very uncertain world. I, I, I, we say, I am not her, I am not him, I am different, I am wiser, more savvy, more street smart, more aware, thinking that this incantation will protect us from all harm.

Before we blame or condemn, we should ask ourselves, Why am I telling myself this story? What do I fear so much that I am willing to throw away my understanding of and compassion for another and cast blame on them? Where does our true safety lie?

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