Excerpt from “Empty Graves and Empty Boats” by Rachel Neumann
There are as many different kinds of anger as there are waves in the ocean. When my older daughter gets angry, there is a deluge of tears. As I watch, she goes limp and sobs into the floor with the unfairness of it all. My younger daughter’s anger is a tornado of hits, kicks, and screams. She can’t be comforted, reasoned, or carried out of the storm until it has run its course. My partner’s anger is quiet and sullen, thick as the southern Mississippi air. Only a slam of the door or a fist on the table occasionally punctuates the silence. Me? I shake with a blaming, seething anger, full of my own righteousness and ready to enumerate the faults of everyone around me.
How do I undo a lifetime of blaming habit? I’ve found there are only two effective antidotes: gratitude and co-responsibility. But gratitude is a tricky emotion. As soon as I think I’m supposed to feel it, as soon as I catch a whiff of even the slightest hint of obligation, any gratitude I might have felt is replaced immediately with resentment. So I was taken off guard when, a couple of years ago, I came across the Kataññu Sutta, a Pali teaching on gratitude. It says: “Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder and your father on the other shoulder for a hundred years, and you were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, and rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate and urinate right there on your shoulders, you would not in that way pay or repay your parents.”
Blaming is neither true nor not true. It doesn’t take me even one tiny step closer to my or anyone else’s happiness or freedom. Lately, whenever someone is blaming or praising me, or when I’m blaming or praising myself, I practice this response from Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “You are partly right.” “You are partly right” means that there is some truth to the story, but it’s not the whole story. I love this because it acknowledges responsibility but also acknowledges that each story has more layers than one person can possibly see.
While “fault” isn’t a particularly useful idea, “responsibility” is. We humans are intricately and necessarily connected to each other, not just for our happiness but also for our very existence. If this is the case, then it makes sense that we are responsible for what happens to each of us, both the good and the not so good.