* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Deuteronomy 1-3: Wanting All of the Credit and None of the Blame

The book of Deuteronomy is an interesting part of the biblical canon.  It's more or less a review of the information included in the previous three books, written as if Moses is being quoted directly.  This was supposedly what Moses spoke to the Israelites as they were leaving their period of wandering and settling in the "Promised Land," a kind of oral history of their journey in the form of sermons.  Of course, Moses didn't have a scribe writing down everything as he said it.  The book was probably actually written much later, four centuries or more after the supposed lifespan of Moses, recording stories and ideas that had grown and developed as a part of Israelite culture for some time.  The first few chapters recall the highlights of their journey before a recounting of the ten commandments and other religious laws.

What's interesting about the words put in Moses' mouth is that they reveal a distinctly different version of things than the previous books contained.  Moses takes credit for delegating authority to other leaders instead of mentioning anything about his father-in-law offering that bit of wisdom.  He does give God full credit for their military victories and losses, as the writers of the previous books in the canon.  As was described in the book of Numbers, Moses tells of the Israelites' conquest and distribution of land east of the Jordan (although he takes credit for proclaiming that God had bequeathed the land to certain tribes rather than suggest that the tribes had asked Moses for the land directly), and he announces Joshua as his successor. 

Moses doesn't openly admit any fault in himself, however.  When he briefly approaches the topic of why he won't be crossing over into the Promised Land with the rest of the Israelites, Moses blames the Israelites for making God angry: "Because of you the Lord became angry with me also and said, 'You shall not enter it, either...'"  Moses doesn't seem to recall his angry outburst at the rock at Horeb, in which he took credit for calling water from the stone instead of acknowledging God.  Instead, the burden of Moses being denied entry into the Israelites' new home is placed on the people.  It does make sense, writing after the fact about a cultural hero, to exonerate the behavior of a great man and use the opportunity to demonstrate the dire consequences of people grumbling and complaining and not trusting God.

It's hard to blame Moses for anything said in Deuteronomy (or any other bit of scripture), since it's highly unlikely that anything the man said or did was documented reliably.  Even if the figure of Moses is based on an actual person, by the time anything was written down about him, he had become more icon than historical fact.  Still, there is a profound lesson that we can draw from the first few chapters of this book, and it applies to us as a culture as well as to us as individuals.  

Recounting history is not a bad thing.  Remembering what we've done, or what other people have done, is one of the key ways we learn and grow.  If we don't remember our mistakes, we are likely to repeat them, and if we don't remember our successes, it can be very difficult to develop any consistency in our abilities.  The way we remember history is equally important, however.  If we recall that we went into a meeting with no sleep and poor preparation and lost an account over it, we can see some things to improve in the future.  We can make changes to our behavior and reasonably expect different results.  If we recall nothing about our own preparation but only know that we lost an account, and we pair that with the belief that God is in control of everything, we can write our own history to read that God didn't want us to have the account and so he took it away from us.  There is nothing practical for us to learn from this, and there is nothing for us to do differently.  We don't have to use God as a scapegoat, though.  We can blame our boss, a secretary, a computer, lots of other people or circumstances, without coming close to looking at ourselves.  We can be very creative when it comes to avoiding blame.

Our history as a people has some great moments and some disappointing moments.  Our tendency is to rewrite the facts so that our pride isn't in danger of being bruised.  We don't want a record of any mistakes or wrongdoing.  We'd rather not think of ourselves as fallible.  The truth is messier than that, though.  It's part of our nature to make mistakes.  It's one of the ways we learn and develop.  No one is immune.  If our history suggests otherwise, we've written a work of fiction, and we've lost a valuable opportunity to recognize how we can get closer to what we actually want.  

We don't just rewrite history to make mistakes go away, though.  When we actually like the outcome, we sometimes rewrite history to make ourselves look better.  When we actually get the account, we are sometimes quick to pat ourselves on the back without recognizing that there were other people involved in putting a presentation together, training us and teaching us what we need to know, getting clients warmed up to the idea of working with us, or any number of other contributions.  We want all the credit we can take when things turn out favorably, and we want none of the blame when we don't like the outcome.  Being aware of this tendency gives us the opportunity to look at things more closely, to grow and get better at creating what we want more reliably.

This is why it's hazardous to look too quickly at uncontrollable forces.  Often our desire to attribute things to God, some other supernatural intelligence, the alignment of the planets and stars, the weather, or anything else that lies outside our control, stems from self-preservation rather than any kind of honest observation.  People have all kinds of beliefs about what governs reality, but we miss something if we discredit our own ability to make a difference in our lives and the lives of people around us.  We can get closer to what we most want by being willing to recognize our responsibility in creating it.  Looking for something greater than ourselves on which we can pin responsibility can be a convenient smokescreen from honestly looking at ourselves.  Part of this is because we have become convinced that making mistakes is shameful and that we have to present ourselves in the best possible light if we are going to "succeed."

Making a mistake is not shameful.  It's important for us to realize this for ourselves and also for us to extend this awareness to how we treat other people.  Surely, some mistakes are bigger than others, and actions often have consequences.  But the act of making a mistake is a function of being human.  We don't have to write mistakes out of our history.  When we acknowledge that things didn't go the way we wanted them to, we can examine the circumstances and determine if there is something we did to contribute to that result.  If so, we can potentially improve something and get closer to what we want.  Sometimes, the outcome really has nothing to do with us.  We are only in control of our own decisions, and that's worth recognizing, too.

Likewise, there is no reason to hoard credit when things go the way we want them to.  There is value in self-recognition, but balance it out with a glance around at the other people that contributed to the outcome.  People rarely accomplish anything entirely on their own, and there is value in acknowledging the people who made a difference.  We might not be able to see completely the complex set of factors that led to a particular result, but we can do our best to have a balanced awareness of our strengths and weaknesses and the contributions of others.  There are volumes that could be written about team management and getting a group of people focused on a specific goal, but the key to accomplishing any of that is being an honest historian, accepting appropriate proportions of credit and blame.  What you want to create can guide what you do with the data at your disposal, but there's never any real value in creating false data.


  1. The name Deuteronomy translates as "Second Law," not to indicate a new law but rather a second telling of the law. On the eve of his death, Moses is giving his testament to a new generation of Israelites -- all those who would have been under age 20 when the great exodus began almost 40 years earlier. They gathered on the plains of Moab to hear Moses restate the law because their parents had defiled themselves in making the golden calf. He's basically appealing to a new generation to not screw everything up.

    And no doubt it was cleaned up a bit! (My Catholic faith allows for that - we are not literalists.)

    I also wanted to comment a bit on the behavioral issues you mentioned. In my graduate studies in business, one of the required classes was Organizational Behavior -- or Psychology for MBAs, as I called it. We discussed the very thing you mention here, which our coursework referred to as the locus of control. In America, we often do exactly what you describe: when things go my way, it's to my credit; when they don't, it's someone else's fault.

    Years ago, I managed an analyst who immigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe; her perspective was the exact opposite. When she nailed something and I praised her, she would always say, "I did nothing, it was [insert external factor here]." But when something went wrong within a mile of her in any direction, she would say, "It's all my fault! I hope you don't fire me, but I will understand if you do."

    Interesting, or so I thought....

  2. That is interesting. We can completely miss reality from different angles, it would seem!

    I was going to mention the "second law" connection somewhere, but this entry already seemed long. Glad you brought it into the conversation!

  3. The professor was making the point that perspectives on locus of control are culturally based... and that we should proceed with caution when dealing with employees or clients from other parts of the world. Fascinating!