“It’s not your fault!”
This has become the default response many people give when I hear something which causes me to utter the words, “I’m sorry.” I’ve heard it from grieving family members. I’ve had it tossed my direction from people in crisis. I’ve had it spat at me by people suffering the throws of depression.
For the longest while I just shrugged it off as people not knowing how to accept empathy, but I’m beginning to re-think that assessment. There are times when a person just isn’t in a place to accept empathy 1, but more and more I’m wondering if people just don’t see “I’m sorry” as empathy at all. To the contrary, they this phrase is an attempt to accept blame for whatever predicament a person is suffering. What leads me to this observation is how “It’s not your fault!” often has a second line, “You didn’t do anything.”
Most times I shrug this off and walk away, as pushing can have more negative effects than positive. There are moments, however, when I’ll feel the need to give a gentle push back, “I’m not saying I did do anything. But this situation is not good, and in a perfect world you wouldn’t be suffering through it. We don’t live in a perfect world, and so you’re where you are at, and I’m sorry you have to suffer this because I see you hurting and I think this isn’t how things are meant to be.” Sometimes people accept my explanation 2, but there have been moments when a person refuses to let go of the thought, “You didn’t do anything, you have nothing to be sorry for!”
I believe the reason so many people are loathe to let an “I’m sorry” pass without insisting the person is off the hook is because of our culture’s very nature. We are not a shame based culture, but we are blame based one. When people in our culture suffer a tragedy, wrestle with a crisis, or feel lost our instinct is to find out who to blame. Something can’t “just be,” because that would reveal the mechanical security of our society to be nothing more than a fragile piece of fiction. No, if something goes wrong it means someone screwed up. And we want their head(s). There must be someone to blame, so all can be right in the world.
I find this impulse interesting, because it parallels an anthropological novel I read in college, Return to Laughter. In the novel the narrator was in a village where a child got sick, and the people living there needed someone to blame for the illness, so they looked for a witch. As a search the community settled on a woman who was on the outskirts of their circle. In the end, even though she had done nothing to harm the child, she accepted both the social power of being considered a witch and the social stigma which thrust her even more to the fringe. But the community resolved the problem to its satisfaction so it felt better.
We still refer to our search for the person to blame as “witch hunts.”
I understand the impulse to find someone to blame. In fact, I experience it. But as our culture slides more and more into a inability to differentiate between an expression of empathy and acceptance of blame I wonder if we’ve hit toxic levels. A culture which leaves us unable to recognize when people are attempting to walk alongside us when we are suffering has a deep illness 3.
- Such as with someone who is in the throws of depression, which is an awful thing I wish on no one. ↩
- At which point they shift into feeling awkward at an expression of empathy. Our culture is not wired well for empathy. ↩
- And this is not helped by cynical expression of empathy which convey little more than a platitude. ↩