The Blame Game
Friday night, December, Peterborough.
The darkness on the edge of town is pitiless and profound.
The civic boulevards are wide and empty, streaked and lit in parts by a neon light so orange, so cold, it’s heart-breaking.
An ambulance blue lights its way along the road, gliding, riding, sliding into the black void in front of it like a bullet fired from a gun. Its windscreen wipers sweep sleet either side of it as it advances, spraying ice and rain rapidly to the left and right.
Two male paramedics are attending to a man laid out flat inside the back of the ambulance, trying to find an entry point for an adrenaline drip in the crack of his elbow. The man’s skin is very pale, although he is sweating profusely. His eyes are closed, but he is breathing fast.
His wife looks on from a bench seat. Her face is white. She is clutching her bag tightly with one hand, holding on to her husband’s free arm with the other. She looks stunned.
That man in the ambulance is me.
I’m 38, I’m fit, healthy and strong, but I’ve suddenly contracted Sepsis and unless it’s diagnosed and treated very, very fast in A&E, I’m going to die. There’s not a minute to lose.
Half a day, is what it takes them to work it out. Although I present with all the classic symptoms of Sepsis – raised temperature, rapid heartbeat, acutely confused mental state, fast breathing, vomiting, headache, rash – I’m set to one side as a curiosity and they just monitor me unenthusiastically every now and then whilst I get ready to die. By late morning, next day, the doctor is telling my wife they’ve left it too late and there’s no hope of saving me. The rest of my family are rushing to my bedside.
Parts of me do die. As snow settles outside and a black blanket of January night obscures the view from the window, they cut off my hands, my feet, my nose, my lips and my chin. They put those bits of me in a bag, and they burn them.
Four months later, I wake up.
So, we all experience loss, failure, disappointment, waste and pain in different ways. In my case, the outcome of that failure to diagnose my Sepsis has been devastating. There were moments when I felt it would overwhelm me. It cut me and stuck me it shocked and humiliated me right to my core.
It took me years to try and come to terms with what happened. Mentally, I’ll admit, I’m held together with sticky tape. I live disability every day, and so do the people around me.
This is what happened to me, and I’ve asked myself a thousand times since who it is that I should blame.
But, blame. That word. What does it mean? What does it signify?
And who do you blame, for the really bad things that have happened in your life? Is it a parent, a sibling, an ex-partner, an employer, a stranger, the government, a disease? Is it an accident, an addiction, love unrequited, debt, an ungrateful child, a politician, a doctor, a judge?
Well, only you know who. Perhaps you talk about it sometimes, or maybe you keep it secret. Quite possibly, it’s someone or something you think about every day, in the quieter moments, or when you’re struggling, feeling defeated, or weak.
You blame them. That person, that thing that happened, that time. It changed your life, and things have never been the same. I know. I get it.
Hmmn. We all do this. It’s natural, cathartic, inevitable, in many ways – a common human response to all kinds of adversity. Literally, we want to pin the blame onto another human being, maybe to hurt them just as we have been hurt.
But hold on. Christopher Hamilton, in his book How To Deal With Adversity, says we should avoid blaming others for the bad things that happen in our lives. He says, on the contrary, it’s not blaming that’s productive. Instead, like Primo Levi, we should think of other human beings as resembling chemical elements, with their own peculiar properties. Each reacts in a certain kind of way with other such elements – it makes no sense to blame a chemical for reacting as it does with another; it just does what it does. Thus we can accept human beings for what they are, seeing the way they react as a function of their individual nature, and there is no rational sense in our notions of attributing guilt or blame.
There are obviously limits. Consider, for example the drunk pilot, or the sleeping railway signalman, or the indiscriminate terrorist. Few would propose sympathy or encourage us to shy away from blaming individuals in these kind of cases.
But in relationships, we have that saying, there’s no smoke without fire, and in court cases, all kinds of extenuating circumstances can be considered as mitigating the extent of a defendant’s guilt. Stuff happens. Indeed, the court context is perhaps useful when we’re considering our own readiness to blame others in our emotionally subjective way. Have we gathered all the evidence, have we considered the case for the defence, and if these comprehensive facts were put to a jury of our peers, in the cold light of day, how would they collectively react?
In the case of the tabloid press, it’s the absence of just this kind of process that so often proves their downfall, leaving journalists and editors with egg on their faces, and hefty legal bills.
In adversity, we especially need to seek balance, and see every incident from all sides. We need to consider everyone’s point of view, in fine detail, looking for facts and explanations, rather than two dimensional blame and hasty judgements.
Redemption is a useful concept in this context. Because, yes, people make mistakes, as did the medical team that treated me in Peterborough that night. They let me down, and I suffered as a consequence – but crucially, I did not die. There are over 40,000 others every year in the UK who are not so fortunate and who perish as a result of Sepsis. Hundreds of thousands more, worldwide. In the event, I was saved at the very last minute, and I must be incredibly grateful for that. Life goes on in all its charming complexity. I’m in love with my wife, I have beautiful children, there is football to be watched. Thank you, whoever it was that saved me in the end. Really, thank you.
Instead of blaming anyone, I must take several deep breaths and forgive. OK, so I have these brutal amputations and this has caused severe pain to me. I look and feel so ugly. But I have survived. I’m alive. I can still pay close attention to the things of this world, the night sky, the wind, the trees, the animals. I can still respond to these things. I can still open my eyes to the endless extraordinary sights of the natural world: the plants, trees, animals, sky, sea. These things are marvellous in their utter gratuity.
In this way, by seeing clearly what is around us, in a real sense, we can be consoled for the pain we carry within us. And if we are consoled in this way, we may be reconciled to the sense of disappointment or loss or hurt we might have concerning the adversity we have encountered.
That’s it. Then maybe we can feel more positive, and not seek to blame others.
April. In Cambridge, in a hospital side room, I wake from my Sepsis coma. I have four amputations, my face has been removed, I have a trachaeotomy cut into my throat, wires of all kinds dripping in and out of me, and a blinding headache.
But I see my wife’s face in front of me.
I can hear the rasping sound of me breathing.
I’m full of love, and love only.
There’s no-one I blame. I’m happy