When Did We Become A Nation Of Victims?

The vital question moving forward has less to do with what happened and whom you can find to blame, and more to do with what you can do now that something has happened to you.
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The past couple of weeks we have been touching upon the notion of intolerance and how intolerance seems to have become increasingly a part of our national fabric. Some have agreed that we seem be becoming increasingly so, while others have argued the notion that nothing is new.

I suppose we could debate forever the origins of intolerance and whether we have more, less or about the same. To my way of thinking, we have shifted so much in favor of "againstness" that just about any point of view is now fair game for outright attack.

Heck, I have a few "fans" out there who like to attack me for even writing about it, much less their disfavor that I earn a living helping others transcend some of these disturbing and divisive tendencies.

So, let's go one more layer into the disturbing nature of our national psyche: When did we become a nation of victims?

Merriam-Webster tells us that a victim is:
1) one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent
2) one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions
3) one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment
4) one that is tricked or duped

I have my own set of victim stories: I went through two windshields as an infant, the result of someone crossing over the center line each time; my father went bankrupt twice when I was a kid; the family went bankrupt a third time when the insurance company denied both health and death benefits when my father died at 42 from leukemia, a condition they claimed he withheld at the time he took out the policies 19 years earlier.

I could go on, but that's not the point. I'm pretty sure there are much better victim stories than my own. In fact, I know of several. One of my favorites, if you can say such a thing, is that of W. Mitchell. His short story is that after having recovered from a horrific motorcycle accident in which he was burned over 65% of his body, losing not only his face, but all of his fingers, he then wound up paralyzed in a small airplane crash four years later.

Sure enough, that's a pretty good victim story.

However, if you have ever met Mitchell, as he prefers to be called, you would never get that he perceives himself as a victim. In fact, he has become an internationally recognized motivational speaker, has been invited to the White House by the past five sitting Presidents, and lives an incredible life despite the cards he has been dealt.

So, hang on a minute. Surely, Mitchell qualifies as one of the textbook definitions of victim. In many respects, I would agree and he might too - if by victim you simply refer to things that happen to you.

However, he provides great counsel even in the title of his classic book, It's Not What Happens To You, It's What You Do About It. One of the more quotable things he has to say: "Before I was paralyzed there were 10,000 things I could do. Now there are 9,000. I can either dwell on the 1,000 I've lost or focus on the 9,000 I have left."

This amazing yet simple man provides great insight into living life. Whereas he would be justified if he spent his life complaining about his losses and many would understand if he had simply given up, Mitchell understands that while he may not have chosen the cards dealt to him, how he plays the cards is entirely up to him.

Said differently, and perhaps a bit sharply for some: each of us has unfortunate circumstances to bear, many of which might qualify under any definition of being victimized. However, the most cruel form of victimization is that which we inflict upon ourselves.

When we dwell on the circumstances we have faced rather than our ability to choose in face of our adversities, we wind up becoming victims of our own thinking, victims of our own seeming unwillingness to choose the 9,000 still present over the 1,000 now lost.

Having overcome a bit of adversity myself, and having worked with thousands of people around the world in any number of incredible circumstances, I am of the mind that each of us is capable of so much more in life if we only would let go of our victim mindset.

Horrible things happen every day and part of me is tempted to say, "let's put aside the truly grotesque so we can consider what 99 percent of us might have to deal with in our more ordinary of circumstances." And perhaps we should.

So, let's bring this in just a notch, and look at the current set of circumstances despoiling so many lives out there. Perhaps you were a "victim" of the Wall Street greed phenomenon; perhaps you lost a house, perhaps you lost a job; perhaps you have endured even worse.

The vital question moving forward has less to do with what happened and whom you can find to blame, and more to do with what you can do now that something has happened to you. Indeed, there are many ways to respond or react.

Those who choose reaction can be seen and heard all over the place, whether it is in the press, in blogs, in angry town hall meetings or simply those crying in their beer at the local pub.

Those who choose to respond may be less visible, but no doubt are more proactive and likely more effective. Effective, that is, if you mean capable of producing a meaningful change rather than a great sounding argument or complaint.

It seems to me that many of us have adopted whining, blaming, yelling and screaming as our form of response to things we don't like and to the unfairness of life.

Then again, guys like Mitchell stand out as sharp reminders of what human beings can do regardless of circumstances.

We will continue to explore this notion of victimhood and what you can do about it in future posts. I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)