Occasionally, on my morning trek to the coffeepot, I encounter a small child standing next to, say, a little pile of broken glass and strawberry jam.
The child will immediately launch into a convoluted and highly implausible explanation of why the blame for the mess ought to be laid at the feet of some absent (or even fast-asleep) party.
The trouble with this is not just the blatant falsehood, even though, as both a philosopher and a mother, I take a keen interest in truth. It's also that the child so firmly believes that identifying the guilty party is the ultimate destination of his quest. Wiping up the sticky and hazardous mess and carrying on as a slightly wiser and more cautious five-year-old has not yet occurred to him.
Finding out whose fault it is, I have to explain, is not the same as fixing the problem.
Jacques Philippe contends (at least implicitly) that there’s not much difference between my five-year-old and many of us.
We understand that finger-pointing (at ourselves or someone else) is not our definitive goal, but in practice we tend to forget it. We have a natural desire, and even need, for meaning, as Victor Frankl explains so persuasively in Man’s Search for Meaning.
But sometimes that natural desire can get a little warped. In the face of misfortune, we're liable to run around in mental circles, frustrated and ineffective, asking (in Philippe's words):
- Why is this happening to me?
- What did I do to deserve this?
- What mistake did I make?
- How long will it go on?
- What’s the quickest way out?
- Is this the way it usually happens?
And, of course
- Whose fault is it?
It’s reasonable and useful to ask these questions. If you can figure out what you did wrong, you can resolve not to do it again. If you do identify the culprit, you can quit blaming yourself or some other innocent party. You can gain self-knowledge, and you can get at the truth.
All worthy goals.
But sometimes, Philippe points out, there is no answer. Or there is, but we won’t know it for another year, or ten, or twenty. Or we’re too close to the situation, or too original-sin-riddled, to see clearly.
In many cases, he says, the relevant question is not “Why?” but “What am I being called to do in response?” Within every hardship is some kind of call. Maybe to repent, maybe to pray for the culprit, maybe to leave the situation to God and abandon the illusion that I can achieve somebody else’s repentance or conversion.
Getting stalled at the finger-pointing step is a tragic mistake, because it gives evil the last word. When you’ve located the guilt in yourself or someone else and don't proceed to address the problem, discouragement or despair is probably going to follow. These, in a sense, are worse than the wrongdoing, because while any sin can be forgiven and wiped out,
despair prevents a person from seeking forgiveness and freedom. So evil wins—not because it’s more powerful than good, but because we fail to take the initiative and do something about the evil.
We feel like we’re being vanquished by evil, but we’re being vanquished by our own inaction.
It doesn’t even make much difference whether it's self-recrimination or accusation of someone else, as long as it ends there. The devil isn’t called The Accuser of the Brethren for nothing.
The Pharisees were accusers. They were rebuked not for their concern for the details of the Law but for ceaselessly poking and prodding other people’s souls in order to find fault. And notice what happens to them, and what can happen to us, if we get similarly sidetracked:
They become blind to the good that’s right under their noses.
We read with incredulity how they fail to marvel at marvels and wonder at wonders. Oddly heartless and devoid even of curiosity, they skip over the healing of terrible, long-drawn-out illnesses and hone in on the timing of the cures. They don’t stop to wonder at a lame man walking, but they do observe that he’s carrying his mat on the Sabbath.
In fact, violating the Sabbath is not some minor infraction: it was tantamount to lack of respect for God. But you get the sense that their professed reverence is just a pretext: they’re not honestly wondering if Jesus is “of God” or not; they’re just looking for an excuse.
Maybe we're not as transparently and passionately preocupied with finger-pointing as the Pharisees and my five-year-old.
Or maybe we are, and we just can't see it.