When I worked in New York City years ago, one of my colleagues had a terrible car accident, and she also learned a lesson about people: We are obsessed with finding logical reasons for everything that occurs. Everyone who visited her continually asked if she had forgotten to wear her seat belt, was going too fast, or was driving a sub-compact car. She thought at first that people were blaming her for the accident, but she finally realized they instead believed that they would be a bit safer in the future if they could only identify some mistake that had put her in danger.
Perhaps this self-preserving instinct goes back to our earliest ancestors squinting out of caves, but, however much our rational minds might disagree, we are wired to believe people are generally responsible for their own good or bad fortune.
We are, of course, not spores carried by a passing wind; we enjoy a reasonable amount of agency in our lives. However, factors over which we have no say set our lives on certain paths no matter how strong our individual wills may be.
It is good to teach our youngsters to be tough and adaptable; no one should simply surrender in the face of adversity because the alternative is to embrace victimhood and blame others for failures that one might have been able to avoid with a little effort. We admire the overachieving immigrant, the President born to humble beginnings, and the athlete who returns from a catastrophic injury to triumph.
However, the flip side of our celebration of the power of the individual is a tendency to blame those who don’t make it, which is conundrum complicated by the fact that sometimes people do make life decisions that put them in harm’s way or difficult circumstances.
Although we want to extend our unwavering compassion to the teenaged mother who drops out of high school, the addict who has a problem with relapses, or the young man who majors in medieval French literature and can’t find a job, we are sometimes more like the well-meaning people visiting my colleague in the hospital after her car accident: We wonder why the teenager and her partner did not use birth control, why the addict can’t stay off the junk, and why that young man so desperately wanted to live in his parents’ basement. We believe a little forethought or strength of character would have avoided their problems altogether—which is certainly true at times.
As much as we all want to live in a world composed of nothing but happy endings, sometimes we need to acknowledge that the world and its inhabitants can be either cruelly unfair or unfairly cruel. However, understanding that both of these are sometimes true would be a good start toward solving some of our most intractable problems because this might allow us to view our world—and those with whom we share it—with both more compassion and some much-needed realism.