When I was first married, my husband and I went to a neighbor’s place to help them clean and pack because they had been evicted from their apartment. As we helped clean, the neighbors described what led to their eviction, and everything mentioned was someone else’s fault. The greedy landlord. The lazy maintenance man. The doctor for prescribing the wrong medications, leading them to be unable to do any work. The stupid employees at the welfare office. The government for being so stingy in helping those with disabilities. Their family for not helping more. Their local ecclesiastical leader for asking that they do work before they received aid from their church. The list went on and on, each one another rock weighing them down in life. Later, I had a chance to talk to some folks who had known the family for years, and it turns out this was just one of a handful of times they had been evicted for not paying rent or for their apartment being in an unlivable condition. Yet, if you talked to the family, their evictions were all unfair and cruel actions taken by a world that was constantly against them.
That instance stuck in my mind as I moved on with life, and I have recognized threads of that attitude—an attitude of victimization—in many, many ways in our culture. It’s nothing new; playing the victim card has been around since we have been around. However, I don’t think we realize just how important it is to choose to not be a victim. Let me elaborate.
Recently, I read two books that were very different, but the two main characters in each story stuck in my head for a while. From the book The Boys in the Boat, Joe Rantz was one of the members of the American gold medal rowing team from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He lived a life of trial; his family was desperately poor and moved all over the place. His mother died when he was young, and his father remarried a woman who hated Joe and constantly tried to rid the family of him. She verbally abused him and, eventually, convinced Joe’s father and family to abandon him, leaving him to fend for himself when he was young.
In the other story, In Cold Blood, Perry Smith was also desperately poor, also had a transient life, also had an abusive parent (his mother was an alcoholic and took him away from his father when he was young, then proceeded to neglect and abandon him). There were various differences in these boys’ upbringings, but many of the major facts were similar. In the end, however, Joe Rantz ended up putting himself through college and being a key member of the 1936 Olympic gold rowing team. His story is one of inspiration and legend. Perry Smith, on the other hand, ended his life at the end of a hangman’s rope, punishment for the brutal murder of a family of 4 on a Kansas farmstead. In Perry’s story, the author outlines the psychological profile of murderers like Perry, and with each statement of background and childhood experience, Joe Rantz could have fit the same profile. So, what was the difference between these two men? What, along the way, sent one man on the path to heroism and success, and the other to a life of crime and murder?
One major difference I saw was the attitude that each man took towards his life. Whatever biological or secondary factors ultimately led each on their own paths, their individual attitude towards life kept them fixed in the direction they were going, to their eventual conclusions. And what attitude was that? One man chose to be a victim, and the other did not.
Technically speaking, a victim is someone who suffers because of the actions of someone or something. They do not choose to be hurt; it is caused by circumstances beyond their control. There are and have been many victims in this world, victims of true abuse, suffering, and unspeakable hardship. I do not want to belittle those circumstances. So for the purpose of this post, let me define what I mean by “victim.” When I say “victim,” I mean those who choose to have an attitude of victimization. This is where a person puts on the trappings of victimhood, even over very small things, and uses their hardships as excuses to check out of life and responsibility for one’s actions, to blame others for everything, to stop trying, to be driven by entitlement and anger. It is when someone lets their pain shape them into a person who only infuses negativity into the world.
I am not saying that you cannot suffer, mourn, take the time and healing and steps towards overcoming slights, hurts, insults, and abuses put upon you. Every single one of us is meant to go through that process of hurting and healing. Please don’t think I am insensitive to anyone’s pain or suffering. However, when you choose to be a victim, you choose to see the world as out to get you; everything is an insult; everyone is purposefully hurting you; innocuous things and people are interpreted as personal attacks. Life is angry; life is sad; life is filled with you and the perceived slights against you.
With this definition of victim in mind, Joe Rantz chose not to be a victim. It was hard, being abandoned, having to fend for himself, being abused, being poor, having no home: each one of those burdens was an additional weight upon his back. But, he chose to work hard and work hard some more, and then work hard again, and didn’t let his hardships get the best of him; instead, he used them as rungs in his ladder to success. He worked hard to have healthy relationships—forgiving and caring for those who hurt him—and to not let his trials overcome who he was. Perry, on the other hand, chose to be a victim. All of his writings are filled with angst and sadness and self-pity at his life circumstances. He blamed everyone else for his bad choices, and let the grievances against him build up and rankle in his soul. Not once did we hear Joe being bitter or blaming others. Even though he had plenty in his life that he could have used, justifiably, to add to a victim identity, he didn’t fall to that temptation.
After all, choosing to be a victim is tempting. It is quite a pleasing option to have in life, accompanied by many perks. It allows you to never take any blame for any of your actions—naturally, your failings are not your fault. It allows you to throw pity parties, which are always really nice to have. It allows you to vent anger in a culturally acceptable way. It garners sympathy and praise and attention. If life's consequences are never your fault, you never have to feel bad about yourself, because we all know that feeling bad about yourself is the new sin, the new allergy, the new no-no in our society.
The victim mentality is the battle-cry of politicians, entertainers, and rioters in the streets. It is the anthem of students as they don’t turn in work on time or fail classes. It is the blanket we wrap ourselves in as we check out of responsibilities and self-improving change. It’s appealing, it’s easy. It puffs us up with a sense of self-importance and makes our lack of achievement and weaknesses okay, or at least bearable.
And because of its appeal, we are a society of victims. Being a victim is the new fad, the new trend, the new must-have cool-kid shoe. Pull on those heartstrings, everyone; life is a life of woe, and it is all brought about by others.
We need to stem the tide; we need more people who choose not to be victims. The first step in choosing to not be a victim is to believe it is a choice, which is a major task; it requires being willing to admit that you—not your circumstances—are in control of your happiness. Corrie Ten Boom, a survivor of the Holocaust confirmed this when she said, “Happiness isn't something that depends on our surroundings...it's something we make inside ourselves.” Many people throughout history who have suffered unspeakable hardship and horror have found saving grace in their ability to find happiness from within.
Once you have accepted that being a victim is a choice, then, you have to actually want to choose to not be a victim. This is hard, given how cozy being a victim is, and given that our society glorifies it. Indeed, the art of victimization is preached from the pulpits of power and bled and cried into our social media news feeds every single day. We are petitioned to causes and rallied to riots and given the fuel to stoke the flames of victimhood. We are never urged against it. We are never taught the power of refusing to be a victim. No, we are encouraged and egged on in self-pity and blame games.
Theodore Dalrymple, a psychiatrist who has vast experience working with the emerging underclass in England noticed that many people in a state of poverty and degradation don’t actually make any effort to pull themselves out of it; instead, they make a lifestyle of being victims. He states:
This way of life is akin to drug addiction, of which crime is the heroin and [welfare] the methadone. The latter [welfare], as we know, is the harder habit to kick, and its pleasures, though less intense, are longer lasting. The sour satisfaction of being dependent on it resides in its automatic conferral of the status of Victim, which in itself simultaneously explains one’s failure and absolves one of the obligation to make something of oneself...because of the unjust nature of society which made one a victim in the first place. [If one of them succeeds], the success of one is a reproach to all [because it means] their viewpoint would naturally have to change. Instead of attributing their misfortunes to others, they would have to look inward, which is a much more painful process.
The categories of victims are vast and growing each day. The mentality ranges from taking offense at a careless word, to entire movements where masses worship and make sacrifices at the altar of victimhood. Some people make being a victim a generations-long battle against the world. Some people seek it out and choose it, fully recognizing our society’s coddling of that attitude. Yes, the scale of the victimization we display in our culture ranges from personal to epic, from just making your day bad, to your month bad, to your life bad, to boiling the cauldrons of societal upheaval and revolution. And it’s all unhealthy. All of it. Choosing to be a victim, and nurturing the attitude of victimization, is never beneficial. There may appear to be temporary payouts, like attention, sympathy, and compassion from others, but those benefits are hollow, a sucker’s effort with ever-diminishing returns.
Choosing to be a victim is morally degrading, and never inspirational. Think of some of the most inspirational figures in our history. Were they victims? Did they take the hardships that were dealt them and use them to cave and complain? Or did they have stories of perseverance against great odds, of strength and endurance, of grace and wisdom? Think of Ghandi, Dr. King, Booker T. Washington, Corrie Ten Boom, great athletes and any other hundreds that come to mind. Stories filled with persecution, hardship, trial and suffering. And yet, somehow, they transcended these life circumstances to become people of strength. It isn’t their hardships and trials that are inspirational, it is the way they reacted to their hardships that is inspirational.
Our culture is, however, experiencing a dangerous shift where we are beginning to worship and idolize people whose only claim to adoration is victimhood. Embracing the hardship and letting it become life, instead of seeking to overcome it, is the new honorable. While it is good that we rally around those who suffer, that is much different than placing them on the pedestals that used to be reserved for those who worked to overcome, or at least endure with bright hope and optimism.
Booker T. Washington was an amazing example of choosing to not be a victim. Born into slavery, and spending most of his life struggling to make his way as a black man in the south after the Civil War, he did not play the victim, even as he lived in a cruel world, a world filled with former slaveholders, and with many people who were openly racist and cruel. Despite this, he recognized that none of that had the power to influence his happiness. He said, “The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of [poor] treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me.” He believed that his fate was in his own hands, and that to let others influence his happiness was degrading. In fact, he built an entire legacy, a school, a legend, based on his philosophy that his race should not, could not, be victims. Given that was his life mantra, it is ironic that Michelle Obama, on the campus of the school that Washington himself founded, recently complained
My husband and I, we’ve both felt the sting of daily slights throughout our entire lives!...those nagging worries that you’re gonna get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason. The fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds … Those feelings are real … They’re playing out in Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country...The road ahead is not going to be easy, it never is – especially for folks like you and me.
Folks like you and me: a rallying cry to unite, not as examples of strength and masters of our own fate, but to unite as victims. Washington must have been rolling in his grave. What an insult to his legacy. But certainly not a surprise. Jesse Lee Peterson, on WND.com, reminded us of another one of Washington’s great quotes, which highlights Michelle’s words well:
There is another class of coloured people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs – partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.
He recognized how appealing it is to be a victim, and also that power players would use victimization to rally the masses to their side, all to maintain their own influence. In contrast, Washington rallied his people to not “permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.”
The trouble is, taking our grievances and turning them into opportunities is much harder than playing the victim. But our grievances—each and every one, every single time—create opportunities. Opportunities to strengthen our character, to increase our wisdom and compassion, to learn to stand on our own feet and walk forward. With each and every situation that presents itself to us, we get to decide: “Is this a graveyard to bury [my] heart? Or is it a garden, where new life will start?”
Indeed, choosing to be a victim is saying, “I am sick, and I do not want to get better.” Imagine being sent to the hospital and choosing to never leave even though you are fully capable of leaving. That is being a victim. That is letting something or someone or some circumstance—even when they are truly hard and difficult—closet us up for the rest of our lives, wallowing in that one moment. In the end, I’m not saying that choosing to be a victim will lead to a degenerate life of crime like the example above. No, the effects are usually more subtle, usually slow in coming--one self-consumed day at a time. And though the end result may not be physical shackles, there are emotional, mental, spiritual, and psychological shackles.
Now, I know that most of us aren’t these major figures I have been discussing. You may dismiss these examples as outliers, too extreme, not relevant to us. These examples mean nothing to me, you might think. My own life is much different. It’s just day-to-day stuff with me, and venting helps. Or, It’s much too hard. I have real reasons to be a victim. But I beg to differ. In fact, this life is filled with opportunities to practice your responses to what happens to you. And, as the adage goes, “Practice makes perfect.” And what better time to start than now?
The time is now to ask the question: Where am I pulling out that victim card or feeding the flame of victimhood?
As parents, how often do we “keep score” of how much we do versus our spouse, and pull out that scorecard to emphasize how bedraggled and worn we are, and how they just aren’t pulling their weight, how that’s just not fair?
In relationships, how often do we turn disagreements on the other person by playing the victim card in order to make them feel guilty and hence win the argument?
In our social media use, why is it that we are so anxious to spread the latest horrible stories and feed on any connection we may have to their happenings?
As parents, how often do we blame teachers, coaches, friends, or others for our children's struggles?
As workers, how often to we seethe over the slights and injustices put upon us by others, and use that anger to gossip, complain, and make excuses for not doing good work?
As citizens, how often do we demonize factors in society and use them as battle cries when we do not succeed in our careers or education?
How often to we use victimized excuses to cop out on things we just don’t want to deal with that day?
How often do we post our misery to garner attention, sympathy, goodies, favors, and love?
How often do we attribute our failings to anyone or anything else, other than just owning it and working to do better?
These are tough questions, but show how easy it is to let victimhood creep into every corner of our lives if we let it. But on the flip side, isn’t it empowering to know that you have the ability to never be a victim again? This does not mean that you can magically sidestep all the negative things that happen to you in life, often because of the actions of others. Life throws some pretty tough stuff at us, but we can be happy despite it. Happiness is all in how you handle these difficulties. Will you make a habit of creating small world wars over every perceived injustice, or use real struggles as tools to strengthen you, embolden you, and provide stepping stones on the ladder to wholeness and dynamism?
So what will it be? Will we let our victimization determine the course of our lives, leading us to anger, frustration, and an endless supply of angst, like Perry Smith, and like many people—including political and religious leaders of our time? Or, will we take what life gives us, and use it to build character, strength, and a legacy of optimism and inspiration for generations to come, like Joe Rantz and Booker T. Washington? To quote Brandi Carlile, “You can dance in a hurricane, but only if you’re standing in the eye.” And when life throws a hurricane at us, as it most certainly will do, how do we get to that eye, that place of peace despite the tumult and hurt? We choose to walk there, with our own two feet.