SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - Everyone Loves a Good Execution
The ultimate blame-game
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A life well-lived is a life well-examined. A life well-examined has a little weird and güd within it. This newsletter is an examination of our weird and güd world.
Blame is a bargain we make with ourselves.
Will you search for your role in an unpleasant outcome in exchange for improving yourself or will you search for every way you aren’t at fault to avoid the discomfort of disliking yourself?
Blame is a crass and ugly habit, like littering in one of the few flower-speckled patches of grass left in your cement city.
Children learn to wield blame within their first few years; as soon as that little ego starts forming, so do the defenses around it. Adults who bring all of the world’s ills back to their pet cause—whether it’s their favorite political villain or a story with a static ending—have simply dressed up their method for shouting “They did it!!”
Blame is like that extra drink you know you don’t need; what feels better in the moment feels worse in the morning.
“It’s your fault!” sounds like the quintessential childhood defense because it tries to obtain what only childhood can offer: no responsibility. Blaming is the opposite of accepting responsibility; it’s the search for whose feet a problem can be thrown at while yours walk away.
Also like childhood, blame makes us the victim by putting us in a position of powerlessness. If you have no role in that problem, you also have no role in solving it.
Blame-slingers should be carefree, happy souls living unburdened by the weight of blame, but psychology has long shown that blamers aren’t exactly living their best lives. Insecurity, defensiveness, and even narcissistic tendencies are some qualities that blame attracts.
The worst part of blame is that this pathological pastime isn’t a single-serving vice. Blame is contagious—and masks won’t mitigate this personal irresponsibility pandemic.
Blame is a multi-player game.
As soon as you see somebody looking for their next scapegoat, your defenses go up, and that defensiveness stokes your desire for a scapegoat of your own.
Company culture is a microcosm of societal culture, but with more Tupperware and shared fridges. Some research has looked at what blame does in a company’s culture and found that if you want more productivity, learning, and creativity, you need a lot less blame.
Since blame is a two-player game, the presence of blame-slingers puts other people into ego mode, where innovation and the risk required for creation becomes the equivalent of running through a minefield.
But enough about company culture. I’m no scientist nor academic, so I’m free to say what research can’t yet reach:
A societal culture of blame makes us all boring.
If an office employee works in fear because they’ll be blamed for a failure at work, what does a person afraid they’ll be blamed for a moral failure in society feel?
A cultural discourse that obsesses over who dun it surely breeds the same kind of insecure, risk-averse, repressed people that a blame-centric company culture does.
When service to our ideals requires little more than shouting “It’s their fault!”, are we truly improving our culture or degrading our culture into a fearful state that makes it harder for people to learn from errors, discuss problems, and offer solutions?
Blame is our biology. As surely as you have an ego, you have the desire to protect that ego by passing the buck of blame.
Even the bible starts with two adults pointing a finger to their side and offering God himself that timeless answer, “It’s their fault!”
Don’t blame yourself for wanting to blame others; self-blame isn’t the same as self-responsibility.
The answer to an immature ethos that seeks to escape the pain of being blamed first isn’t only to treat blaming with the same shock and disgust as a public bowel movement, but to innoculate ourselves against the need for that psychological self-defense. The same study that found blame is contagious also found that people who boosted their self-esteem didn’t catch the contagion.
When individual effort is often dismissed as trivial, the fact that only individual effort works to abstain from blame is proof enough that a few minutes of self-reflection might not make a good hashtag, but is the quiet core of cultural change.
The Salt Lake Herald, 1894
Socrates is such a central and founding figure in western philosophy that even over 2,000 years after his execution, that single name is known to people far and wide, whether banker, biologist, or burn out. His omnipresence after death only proves it may not have been pure arrogance that spurred Socrates to suggest that instead of a death sentence he be punished with a lifetime of free meals.
Even though his existence today comes entirely from second-hand accounts, Socrates’ bold, brilliant, and eccentric personality translates clearly across time.
He didn’t hesitate to question anything or anyone, seeing the role of philosophical provocateur as a service that improved the world through highlighting blind spots and contradictions.
You can learn things from Socrates that will change your world. While most people scramble to construct shoddy answers to every question, asking more questions instead of offering endless answers can change your life.
There are costs to the pursuit of wisdom, though.
Ask questions to the wrong people at the wrong time and you risk a similar fate to Socrates—condemned for immorality and the corrupting of feeble minds.
The true reason Socrates was executed is argued over. Though some scholars argue it was devious elites maneuvering for power and others argue it was Socrates’ fault for being so damn annoying, the most interesting aspect of Socrates’ execution was that he did absolutely nothing to avoid it.
The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David
Is there any principle so true you’d sacrifice your reputation to uphold it?
Is there any idea so noble you’d sacrifice your life to preserve it?
As foreign as it feels, look a few generations back in your family and you might find a relative who felt proud to risk their life for a good reason.
When most won’t risk social rejection to stand by their beliefs, sacrificing your life for what you believe feels like a fairytale.
Socrates was sentenced to death for the kind of crimes that often disguise malicious intentions—disrespecting dogma and corrupting some anonymous youth. Every person expected him to flee; his students haggled bribes for his release and his captors left his prison ripe for escape.
Faced with an unfair fate, most people immediately start planning their escape.
Why should you be subjected to an undeserved fate by unjust people? The answer is the last lesson Socrates left us with.
The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David - (detail)
Socrates lived by his own philosophy; he believed in the value of questioning all, he believed in abiding by society’s social contract, and he believed in what he believed in.
It’s one thing to hold beliefs—it’s another thing entirely to commit to your beliefs.
To believe your beliefs means to trust that the outcome of your choices is the right outcome even when it yields suffering.
When all you can see is the suffering that standing for your beliefs will bring, the temptation to recant seems like an obvious escape route.
We struggle to understand how Socrates could so willingly accept his unjust execution because we can’t see what he could—there is no escape from breaking your integrity.
Socrates could have apologized to the court, he could have offered a reasonable concession instead of mocking their contempt for him, he could have bribed the elites, he could have escaped to another place. Yet, every single escape would come at a cost.
Perhaps it would have cost him in reputation, as he’d finish life as a philosopher that didn’t live by his own ideals. Perhaps it would have cost him in peace, as he would’ve spent old age in the shadow of the injustice he bowed to.
But there’s a more subtle cost here and it’s the one I believe only Socrates was wise enough to see.
The Heavenly Tenants by Ilonka Karasz
For Socrates, being spared the death penalty would require rejecting his beliefs and playing by the rules of those with corrupt intentions. He might gain in the short-term, but abiding by beliefs that aren’t his for one advantage would open the door to infinite long-term consequences.
Are your beliefs truly yours if you toss them aside the moment another belief system offers a momentary advantage?
Convenience is not a virtue. To turn your back on your beliefs the moment they aren’t convenient is to live by another belief system entirely, a kind of hollow hedonism that doesn’t even seek pleasure, but merely avoids pain.
To live for nothing but the avoidance of pain is to live in fear. Such a life is a miserable one, suffocated under lost potential and the anxiety of your inevitable wrong decisions.
Socrates was 71 when he accepted his execution. Rather than denounce himself at the end of his life, he trusted his beliefs to the absolute end. Thousands of years later, a philosopher who never wrote a single word will be studied by people who’ve yet to be born, with even the last hours of his life still being examined for wisdom.
Like ending a bad relationship or standing by your beliefs when it means you stand alone, the cost of integrity is painful, but suffering in the name of your beliefs today is less painful than suffering in the name of a convenient escape tomorrow.
Every action has its pleasures and its price.
Self Portrait, 1978 by Jan Tarasin
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
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