What is likely to be the first question asked by people who have just learned someone known to them has lung cancer? I have heard this first-response question many times in that situation: “Does s/he smoke?” Partly because my father died from throat and lung cancer and, yes, he smoked for sixty years, I have pondered the functions of blame in people’s scripts for handling life, in this case for handling bad, disturbing news that has come close to home by threatening the life of someone known to them.
The term “scripts” was used by the brilliant theorist Silvan S. Tomkins for our array of learned and practiced responses to affects such as fear, distress, shame, interest, or joy. Affects, as Tomkins uses the term, are the body’s physiological starting points for feelings, emotions, moods, and sometimes disorders, and he identified nine of them that are “hardwired” into us to be triggered by outside stimuli, such as the news that a friend or acquaintance has lung cancer. Affects may be triggered in combination and with varying intensities and durations. My question concerns the functional use of blaming as a script or set of scripts for handling unwanted affect. Further questions about blaming will look to its social and political uses, but let’s start with the personal.
What good might it do me to receive the information that the friend or acquaintance with lung cancer does or did smoke? Surely, I am not going to respond to a “yes” by declaring, “Well, then, it serves him/her right!” am I? No, but am I not trying to fit the distressing news into a category I can label, if not as “deserved,” then at least as explicable, reasonable, or appropriate in a cause-effect sort of way? I am reducing the threat to my own sense of security and well-being by assigning a reasonable explanation for the bad news that has come too close to home. I am saying it didn’t have to be that way for the person with lung cancer; someone is to blame. S/he wasn’t “chosen” at random but was “guilty” of behavior that caused the regrettable situation. To some extent, then, I feel better, safer, and more able to breathe freely once I “know” the cancer can be reasonably attributed to behavior of which I am not guilty. I have used my blaming scripts for self-defense, and to some degree that tactic has worked to preserve my comfort with life.
I reject the notion that because he had smoked, my father deserved to die from throat and lung cancer, and I would continue to reject it even if it could be proven clinically that his smoking was “the cause.” My dad also worked with asbestos, but the addition of that other possible cause neither aggravates nor mitigates my belief that people do not simply “deserve” troubles they, to some extent, bring upon themselves. Mainly, I find no solace in blaming my father for his cancer, and I know that some ten percent of the people who get lung cancer neither smoked nor had prolonged exposure to a suspect substance such as asbestos. Knowing that his life and habits almost undoubtedly contributed to my dad’s manner of death in no way lessens my sense of loss or my sense of the wrongness of his cancer.
Here is where faith figures into the matter. Cancer is natural, even if it is related to particular human behaviors or the environmental results of societal behaviors. So, what makes me speak of “the wrongness of cancer”? Every living thing in this world eventually dies from something. As a friend reminded me a while ago, “None of us is getting out of here alive.” My sense of the wrongness of human misery, even when it can be reasonably said to have been brought about by the sufferer’s own choices and actions, comes from my belief in God’s desire for human wholeness and God’s compassion for those who suffer, whether they are blameworthy or not. That “article” of my faith raises many questions and potential objections to explore. For now, I simply ask the questions of how scripted we are to use blaming to protect ourselves from other people’s distresses and of how that self-concerned blaming affects others, including the people upon whom we lay the blame.
Further, my faith insists that God’s purpose is to rescue and redeem, not to lay blame and punish. How does that primary belief change one’s outlook on human suffering and one’s responses to it?