There's No Excuse for All Those Excuses

I called the credit department of a local store the other day to bring a slight error to someone's attention. After several lengthy conversations with different people, I was told that it was a computer error.

Actually, I didn't care whose fault it was. But isn't it interesting how often computers are blamed for the foul-ups that occur in our lives? Of course, it's usually the people who feed information into computers who are the real culprits, but it's easier to blame a machine--it can't defend itself.

We make excuses when we want to spare others or ourselves. When leaving a party early, for example, any number of excuses would be preferable to saying that we're getting bored and sleepy, which may be the truth. Most of us use excuses to make it easier on others in such situations.

Sometimes, however, our excuses are more self-serving. They may even become smoke screens that prevent us from seeing ourselves as we really are. Some might use an excuse such as "I'm just not the emotional type" as a reason for being unaffectionate. "I'm only a product of my environment (or upbringing)" can be used to explain practically any undesirable human behavior.

While these kinds of excuses serve a protective purpose, they can also keep us from facing reality and solving our problems. Some excuses are so ingrained that they become valid reasons in our minds. How often have we heard someone say, "I'm quiet by nature, and that's why I don't talk"? Then comes the final resignation, "That's just the way I am."

It thus makes it easier to believe there's no need to work at improving, or even to recognize that there may be a problem. After all, what can we do when nature has already stamped out our traits? Actually, if we're intent on explaining our behavior, there are several forces out there that can provide us with powerful excuses. "You have to understand, I'm a Virgo. That's why I nitpick." "You're stubborn because you're a Capricorn. What can we do? It's in the stars!"

It's this sort of reasoning that helps some people believe that being sloppy or unfeeling or violent is more understandable in a man, or that being fickle or gossipy is easier to understand in a woman. And if gender or the stars do not help explain things, perhaps one's nationality can. "How can I help being hot-tempered? I'm Irish." Or, "You know us Latin types--we're just natural lovers." Those with a mixed background have an even wider selection. They can say things like, "Oh, that's the Italian or Jewish or Indian in me," depending on which fraction seems the most appropriate.

I realize that these excuses should not be taken too seriously. It only gets to be a problem when we use them as a crutch to explain ourselves or cover up problems. Consider the case, a few years ago, of a young man who brought suit against his parents for "malpractice of parenting." It seems to me that he was profoundly unhappy with himself as a person and, like so many others, found it convenient to hold his parents responsible for his deficiencies. Aside from being a legal novelty, it made me wonder if he had ever heard of the possibility of growing up and taking responsibility for his own life.

How many of us find it convenient to assign responsibility for our behavior to someone in our formative past? No matter how much of a cushion it provides for our present self-image, it does little to help in getting on with life and coming to terms with our problems.

As we seek to better understand ourselves and others, it would be well to recognize the excuses we carry around. When we allow them to go unchallenged, they often become a negative part of our reality. When we say things like "It's because of you that I drink" or "I'm too old for that" or "I'm too busy for that," and if we say them often enough, we lose touch with the fact that these statements may be responsible for interfering with our growth.

The next time we provide well-worn excuses for the way we are or for what we do, we might also consider our potential to change our unfavorable traits. If we truly want to take command of our lives, perhaps we should stop giving excuses or blaming others for our faults. Growing into responsible adulthood requires no less.

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