Chaplain's Corner + Excuses
The world is awash with people in all walks of life making excuses. No one in any level of society, government, military, the corporate world, educational, health and religious institutions is exempt from making excuses. Clinical psychologists consider ‘making excuses’ a form of psychological defensiveness. Albert Ellis (1962)i puts it this way: “psychologically, therefore, rationalizing or excusing one’s behavior is the opposite of being rational or reasonable about it.” (p. 433) He then points out the untoward consequences of such defensiveness: “to rationalize or intellectualize about one’s self-defeating behavior is to help perpetuate it endlessly.” (p. 344)
While writing this month’s Chaplain’s Corner, I took time out to cook dinner, during which I watched an episode of the Food Network Show Restaurant Impossible. Chef Robert Irvine goes into an appallingly failing restaurant with his design team with the goal of turning around, in a short time and with a limited budget, failures that can include filthy, outdated interiors, abysmal service, subpar menus and cooking, but, most often, severely dysfunctional interpersonal problems among the owners (many times married and/or family) and between owners and staff (who are often also relatives of the owners). Common to owners, staff and chefs are a myriad of excuses for poor performance. In this particular episode, Chef Robert, with his usual military bearing and tone of voice (he was a former chef in the British Royal Navy), had a one-liner to solve the problem that hits the bull's-eye. He told owners and staff quite dramatically: “Step up and own it.”
Popular wisdom does not excuse excuses.ii The well-noted statesman of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin, writes: “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” George Washington Carver, born into slavery in Missouri in 1864, who went on to becomes a noted scientist, botanist, educator and inventor, tells us: “Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.” Florence Nightingale, the great pioneer of modern nursing notes: “I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took an excuse.”
Taking responsibility and avoiding excuses is certainly emphasized, of course, in various spiritual traditions. A Hindu saying goes: “He who cannot dance claims the floor is uneven.”iii This is echoed by Mahatma Gandhi: “It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one's acts.”iv In the Judeo-Christian tradition we read: “A sinful man will flee reproof, and will find an excuse according to his will.” (Ecc. 32:21) Finally, let us reflect on the wisdom of the Holy Spiritual Father of the Eastern Church, St. Isaac the Syrian (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011, p. 498)v who, commenting on the excuses made by those who begged off on attending the Wedding Banquet described by Jesus in His Parable of the Supper (Lk 14: 16-24), wrote; “Let us, therefore, not excuse ourselves, lest that word also be said to us what was said concerning them. What word? ‘Amen, I say unto you, that none of those men which were bidden shall taste of My supper.’ His ‘supper’ means, of course, to be one with God in His Heavenly Kingdom.” So, let us remember the benefits of having the honesty and courage, when needed, to “Step up and Own” our failings.
i Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart.
v Holy Transfiguration Monastery. (ed., trans.). (2011). The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (revised, 2nd edition). Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery