Like many of you, I am devastated by the images from Haiti. This natural disaster is gut wrenching. Viewing and thinking about the aftermath is overwhelming. Recently, I overheard someone in the grocery store blaming the victims. I could hardly believe that this person was attributing some of the fault to the people in Haiti, saying "Well, what do expect when they use shoddy construction and don't do things right?" I was incredulous. Then I heard about Pat Robertson's argument that 200 years ago the people of Haiti made a deal with the devil. After I finished shaking my heard, I wanted to understand this type of thinking.
Why is it, that when bad things happen in situations that are completely out of anyone's control, some people feel the need to blame the victims?
As a former pediatric ICU nurse I've seen way too many tragedies and witnessed the range of coping mechanisms that people employ when the unthinkable happens. I've seen people rise to the occasion and others sink to new lows.
From my experience with life and death situations, I believe blaming is a way of coping with anxiety-producing realities that would otherwise be too harsh to take. When we find out that someone has had something awful occur, a diagnosis of cancer, a car accident, a death, an earthquake, we search for explanations and preventable causes. When there are no discernible, direct, and preventable causes, some people become overwhelmed with the thought that "If it happened to that person, it could happen to me,"
They quickly dismiss this bone-chilling assumption with an explanation for why the victim fell prey to this fate. That, somehow he or she deserved such a horrible experience because of some short-coming or personality quirk. They go on to reason, "Something this terrible could never happen to me. I am not like that person."
Sometimes people rationalize "I'm immune to that situation or event because I live a perfect life." Or that the world is a good and just place, and if you do everything right, you'll be spared major catastrophes and calamities. This is an aspect of a theory of the "We Live in a Just World Phenomenon."
People who believe that the world has to be fair or just often find it difficult to accept that sometimes Bad Things can Happen to Anyone at Anytime. It's too difficult to grasp the concept that it's entirely possible that bad things can happen to good people for no reason.
Some experts believe that when reality strikes, and the reality doesn't mesh with a person's view of their own immunity from disaster, it can lead to a cognitive dissonance and they resort to blaming the victim. In this case, cognitive dissonance refers to a person having a disconnect between the reality they see and the fear of the reality in their head. It's too much to deal with, so they rationalize another explanation that enables them to feel safe.
When I worked in the ICU, I saw this illogical thought pattern play out. Families whose child was critically ill also had to deal with friends and family who were trying to come to grips with a child's life- threatening condition and often made hurtful comments about how it was somehow the parent or child's fault. We nurses used to shake our heads in disbelief. And now as a nurse practitioner, I often see patients who are treated the same way. Imagine being diagnosed with cancer and having to endure comment like, "Well, you know, negative thoughts can lead to cancer."
I've heard from women who've had miscarriages that people asked them if they forgot to take their prenatal vitamins? Or perhaps they had too much stress or exercise.
I believe that people who make these comments live in fear, they don't know if they have the capacity to deal with tragedy and in order to feel safe they project these fears onto the survivors or the victims.
As Oprah says, here's what I know for sure. We all have challenges. As a nurse, who has seen way too many people suffering and dying over the years, I've seen some horrific challenges; Here's the deal: We all have challenges in life, we just don't get to chose what they are. Sorry to say, but those clichés are true. In every life, some rain must fall.
As a mom, I'm looking for ways to impart an understanding of the world to my teenage son. We've talked about this concept a lot lately. I believe that he real key to living in this world as a decent, compassionate human being is in how we deal with the challenges we face. We can do everything right, and still the unthinkable can happen. It's not how fast we run from challenges, it's how we face them and how we cope during and with the aftermath. Character is also molded in how we treat others while in the midst of a crisis.
Character doesn't arise from blaming someone or an entire country for a natural disaster, that's not what shapes a compassionate character. Blaming is not to be admired or repeated, as this mentality is hardly what's best about human nature. Finger pointing explanations are simply the words of the fearful.
So when you look at the images of people struggling in Haiti, or anywhere, I hope you aren't quick to blame innocent survivors, because it could just as easily be you or me the next time.