“Be careful on the road! I just heard on the news that there’s a crazy man driving the wrong way on the highway!” yelled the nervous woman into her phone. Her husband frantically responded, “What do you mean one man driving the wrong way?! Everyone here is driving the wrong way!”
We have a tendency to uphold our own self-images by blaming our problems on our surrounding circumstances. When things at work fall apart, it is our co-worker’s incompetence or slacking off; when our house is a mess it is our spouse’s fault; and when we are driving it’s always the other person cutting us off. As our sages teach us, “A person sees all wounds except his own.” We like to see ourselves in the right and blame others for our failings.
To be sure, this natural inclination is not entirely bad. It serves us well by protecting our ego and sense of self-worth. Seeing our shortcomings as products of exterior causes allows us to maintain our optimism and faith in ourselves. People who lack this skill often see themselves as deficient and fall prey to pessimism and depression. Dr. Martin Seligman, in his acclaimed book Learned Optimism, considers this ability to be one of the foremost ingredients to being a successful optimist and successful in life.
Nonetheless, we cannot allow this perspective to be our only view of life’s occurrences. We must balance it with a healthy sense of personal responsibility. Whether at work or at home, with friends, family, or fellow highway speedsters, our buttons are always being pushed. Qualities of patience, benefit of the doubt, courage, faith and others are of invaluable importance in all areas of life. If every time something happens it is someone else’s fault, we will never develop any of these virtues and we will never grow as individuals.
Frustrating and difficult situations are opportunities to turn inwards and see how we could have acted differently. By looking into ourselves, accepting a slight blow to our ego and letting our picturesque self-image falter just a little, we are able to locate areas of our character that could use some strengthening. When things at work go awry it is an opportunity to identify your role in the chain and see where you can improve, whether as a person or a professional. When things at home are tense and tempers are flaring, instead of blaming your children or spouse, take a moment to identity your piece in the puzzle.
It may be difficult to do this in the moment of frustration, but after all the dust settles, take a step back and think–would it have been helpful had I been less judgmental or more patient? What could have happened had I spoken in a softer tone or given an extra compliment? Would the office run smoother if I were more effective in balancing my workload by delegating and being more organized? These are the questions that bring about character development and growth. Excessive amounts of self-critique can be damaging, but a healthy diet of self-introspection can go a long way.
King Solomon, in his infinite wisdom, took this idea a step further. “As water reflects a face back to a face, so one’s heart is reflected back to him by another,” he said. In other words, “You are what you hate.” The blemishes a person sees in others are often a reflection of his own weaknesses. When you are in that moment of anger and frustration, blaming your co-worker for being lazy or your spouse for being moody, it is not enough to take responsibility; rather, it is imperative to realize that it is specifically the aspect you are most infuriated by that is most likely your own greatest flaw. While this is often very difficult to swallow, it can be used as a helpful tool to identifying the parts of our personality that need the most improvement.
The golden path is the path of equilibrium and balance, as Maimonides states. An overload of personal responsibility and blame leads to an unhealthy lack of self-confidence and can paralyze your ability to march on through the difficulties of failure. On the other hand, placing all shortcomings on other people and factors external to yourself disables a person from truly growing and developing respectable character. Real optimism means seeing the glass half full but still recognizing that there is a missing half that we can–and need–to fill. When you feel that everyone around you is driving the wrong way, it is time to realize that you yourself need to turn around.