I Blew it on Independence Day

I Blew it on Independence Day


A few years back I wrote – boasted? – that I was going to work on my repetitive behavior patterns, “because too often I repeat irritations, avoidances, and misunderstandings.” And then the following week, on the 4th of July, I completely missed a chance to do so. I completely blew it. I was judging the behavior of a family member, and I knee-jerk confronted, then knee-jerk turned my “inquiry” of them into a debate and then an indictment. And I caused real hurt.

I felt bad about it all the next day. On a long run and then a long car ride, my mind went through the same old mental muscle memory cycles: proving I was justified, finding fault in the other, then slowly beginning to think through ways I could take responsibility for my role. I thought of things to say, explanations, even apologies, but my mind, kept slipping into the same rut, screaming: “Heck, I was right in the first place, I was the one affronted, and it wasn’t my problem.” I am totally convinced that what I experienced may be a one-two mental trap that costs us billions in productivity and billions of hours of personal heartbreak. Trap number one: for some reason, we see others’ behavior and we feel attacked. We counter-attack. And our counter-attack creates a total self-fulfilling prophecy. How? Well, the other strikes back, just as we predicted! We knew they were a threat! We mentally play out their offenses (glossing over our own) over and over to prove we are right, victims, trapped not by our thoughts but by them.

A second possibility – and a second trap – may present themselves. If we are lucky enough, blessed enough by wise counselors and friends and lovers, we realize we’re really not perfect, we probably contributed to the problem, so we should figure out how and what to do. But so comes the second vicious rut that I described above. We feel attacked by ourselves for our failings (or feel attacked by a friend when we start to confide in them and they try to help us see how perhaps we have contributed to the problem). It’s feels like a psychic auto-immune disease, our mind or conscience is attacking us. So we fight away the thought. Our defensive mind “reasons” that the “other” person is still out there – our wife, or brother-in-law, sales competitor, or political enemy – lurking on some horizon, probably poised for another round of attack. We can’t let our guard down, undermining ourselves, and revealing our weakness. So, what do we do? We beat back the self-recrimination, as I did on my long run and continue to play the old tape: “I was right” and “s/he has wronged me.”

Jennifer helped me to step up to my bad behavior and see what I needed to acknowledge and apologize for. Now, I’ve got to watch for that tendency to judge in the future – tomorrow and the next day. We humans are nuts! Why we create the need to initially judge others and turn them into adversaries is itself peculiar. Why we help to then create or evoke this lousy reality into being is further mystery. And how we find the ability to calm the sense of attack and fear of our self-inquiry is yet another hill to climb (trusted, loving fellow travelers seem essential on that trip). I suspect that this journey is really worth it. How many marriages, businesses, or political wars might be eased if we managed our own mental patterns a little more effectively?

I’m deeply curious about your thoughts and especially your experience with this anatomy of judgment, hurt and denial, and especially with your experiences of early awareness and mental adjustment.

Searching for best-self leadership,


  • Dan,

    We talk about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but we worry about security. What you describe is basic, naked, core human behavior. At one time, the ability to perceive a threat, quickly judge its severity, and launch a counterattack or retreat, often making the difference between survival and oblivion. Those threats were physical, material, and truly deadly — severe weather, fire, big hairy brutes with long yellow teeth, etc. If the sabre-tooth tiger got you, it wasn’t the fault of the tiger. It was because you were too slow.

    The “threats” we face now are not so physical, but no less real in their impact — and they come at a rate which would drive our ancestors mad. I process more information in a day than my great grandfather processed in a month or two. We often don’t have the time, the resources, or the knowledge to fix the problem; so we do the next best thing: We fix the blame.

    At its core, what you describe is the recipe for Washington gridlock, for party political battles, for human conflict around the globe. We no longer have time to analyze the problem, synthesize a response, and act. We snap judge potential adversaries/challenges, put them in well-worn boxes with labels we recognize (fix the blame), and if possible, put the box in someone else’s pile. At this stage, we point at the other person and holler loudly about their lack of action to fix the problem. This step goes by many names: Campaigning, debating, diplomacy, etc.

    If we can’t pile shift, we play the victim card, and claim the right to defend ourselves — with violence, if necessary. We attack problems. We fight disease. We make war on drugs, poverty, and each other. We can’t fix the problems because we are too busy fixing the blame. I didn’t drop the vase…you MADE me drop the vase. I didn’t just raise your gas prices, the cost of oil (Mid-east war, etc.) MADE me raise your gas prices.

    I learned this by getting leukemia. There was no one to blame, no one to fight, no box to hide the problem in. Some problems have no solution, no fix. I have been near death three times and have lost my patience with those who spend their days fixing blame and ignoring problems. Still, I find myself tripping over the old behavior, even with new eyes and a new appreciation for the value of time. The answer lies in getting rid of the boxes with labels like: race, religion, politics, and economics. Take a good long look at humanity, warts and all. Maybe if we see a human face, we can stop shooting at each other — and shoot the big, hairy brute with long, yellow teeth.

    It is late and I am tired. Sorry about the rant.

    Mick McKellar

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