. . . her imperfection, which seemed to her to be the cause of all the evils in the world.

– Catherine of Siena


This is the sign of the spirit of truth: to realize that God’s being is total love and to acknowledge oneself as total hate.

– Angela of Foligno


One thing no one seems willing to do is to take personal responsibility for whatever they feel is wrong . . . with them, with everything. In all directions one sees people placing the blame for problems outside of themselves, justifying their own behavior, and generally acting in ways that express, implicitly or explicitly, their presumed innocence, goodness, rightness, intelligence, and so forth. Among the more popular means of doing so are worry, outrage, and criticism, which effectively claim that their agent is conscientious, ‘part of the solution,’ and generally capable of handling the situation better than it is being handled, if only it were in their power to do so. And of course contrary kinds of claims—that one is confused, messed up, a loser, etc.—work just as well to exonerate oneself from the possibility of being fundamentally at fault. Indeed acting stupid, guilty, sick, or incapable are among the shrewdest ways of evading self-responsibility and the actions that would follow from taking it: I’m sorry but . . .  


What accounts for this massive general bias towards not pointing the finger towards oneself? Why are we so quick to let ourselves off the hook? How come you are always right, even in the midst of losing—as you always have—every argument with yourself? These are fair questions, though I doubt seeking causal explanations can be of much help in grappling with a fact that rather must be faced immediately, in its own mirror. So instead let us simply open a window into the opposite inner imperative: to know and feel that you are indeed the cause of all evils, to never think that you are not behind whatever is wrong. In the end there is more to be learned from the complex negativity of this intuition of complicity, which perforce includes what refuses it, the sense of its own impossibility, than from any positive answers as to its ultimate validity. At minimum doing so preserves conscience against the far more harmful error of believing yourself or another person to be good, innocent, right, and what not. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good?’” (Mark 10:17)


A passage from Dante’s Purgatorio points the way. Ascending through the terrace where souls purge themselves of anger—the vice most entangled in the perception of vice—we encounter one Marco Lombardo, who identifies himself as a lover of virtue: “I knew the world, and I loved that worth toward which everyone now has unstrung his bow” (16.47-8). Through the voice of Marco, as the volitional metaphor anticipates, Dante will defend the will’s freedom against both astral and earthly determinism—a topic that emerges from the pilgrim’s desire for an explanation as to the world’s vicious state: “I beg you to point out the cause” (16.61). Marco’s reply, as if venting the query from his own heart, is priceless: “A deep sigh, which sorrow dragged out into ‘uhi!’ he uttered first, and then began: ‘Brother, the world is blind, and you surely come from there’” (16.64-6). For it contains by implication the conclusion of his answer, namely, that the source of the problem lies within the questioner: “if the present world has gone astray, in you is the cause, in you let it be sought” (16.82-3). In short, Marco’s sigh reflects the sad comedy of the human who, individually and collectively, finds himself sitting in the driver’s seat at the center of the whole accident and somehow assumes he is not at fault. As Augustine writes in the Confessions, “I sought for the origin of evil, but I sought in an evil manner, and failed to see the evil that there was in my manner of inquiry.” To consider the evil you see as outside yourself, as if you were a neutral observer, is thus actually a manner of negligence or not choosing (nec + legere). More precisely, it is a willful carelessness, a choosing to remain blind to the fact that one is indeed choosing blindly and making the worst choice, that of the nauseatingly lukewarm, “neither cold nor hot” who are spat out at the end of time (Revelation 3:15). So for Dante, the tumultuous, eternally lamenting souls of the negligent are mixed in Hell with the neutral angels, they who during the war in heaven “were for themselves” (Inferno 3.39). Of them it best not to speak, for “their blind life is so base that they are envious of every other fate” (3.47-8), indeed they “were never alive” (3.64).


To see how this concept of neutrality as radical spiritual failure might apply toward a practical understanding of the malevolent agency of presumed innocence we may thus consider the repercussions of complaint. For complaint, a marginal or secondary order of discourse that weirdly installs itself as primary, likewise occupies a position of false neutrality towards the problem, as if one were its bystander, a victim of whatever one complains about. But what if complaint, like the pan-envy of the lukewarm, is itself the perpetrator? So Vernon Howard speaks of complaint as machinic and literally continuous with the violence of war:

And you are going to be so cruel, and so asleep, [as] to walk right up to that person and pile your blabbermouthery and your troubles right onto him, onto her. This shows you have no love in you at all. Are you the only human being who exists on earth? . . . And you are the cause of millions of human beings being killed in war, in crime. And because you walk over and talk to that person, because you are a machine who has no choice, you are the cause of every starvation on earth . . . because all the money’s been spent on machine guns. And you don’t even know that you are the cause of that little girl being blasted off the face of the earth with that gun. (Talks)

Considering how overt acts of terror throw into crisis and frustrate our conventional sense of the proper distinctions between innocent and guilty, civilian and combatant, we must consider how complaint is likewise a terroristic act, one that, through a subtle reversed confusion of such categories, produces a similarly ruinous atmosphere of collateral damage. Even if one does not affirm a metaphysics that might causally account for its destructive material consequences,[1] there is something inherently truthful about the idea, which at minimum makes ecological sense. For apart from the direct psychic pain complaint causes, and its draining of the moment’s possibility of being otherwise, the fact remains that complaint simply violates the unity of things, the living perception of the order of reality, however vast or various it turns out to be, as intrinsically one. Or rather complaint testifies to that unity in a perverted way, by representing it as cut or broken, precisely in denial of its own cutting nature.[2] For this reason it makes sense to consider complaint as a form of unconscious confession, an inadmissible admission of an inadmissible fault, the fact that one is indeed to blame for everything, starting with what one complains about. Originally meaning ‘to beat one’s breast’ (from the root plāk-, ‘to strike’), complaint negatively testifies to one’s being of a piece with a living body too big for our blindness to see, to the unitary ground where harming others and harming oneself are found like blood to be the same. Indeed striking oneself is also a confessional gesture, whose sense is not to hurt but to bring to light and purify, like beating a rug: “No sooner have you heard the word ‘Confiteor’ than you strike your breast. What does this mean except that you wish to bring to light what is concealed in the breast, and by this act to cleanse your hidden sins?” (Augustine, Sermo de verbis Domini).


Assuming that everything is your fault—which it is—someone asks, what am I to do now? [Sigh.] The point is to see it, even if there is nothing to see. To keep the mirror of vision clear, open to its own specular nature, so that one sees what you never want to. So that one speaks with a mouth ready to swallow the bitterest heart of failure, beginning with the horrible fact that your so-called innocence is full of guilt, your so-called goodness full of evil, and your so-called love full of hate. Such is the infernal deeper fault, the openly hidden fissure in our world, that we secretly desire what is wrong with things, for starters as a seductive distraction from our own wrongfulness, another war to blind you from the inner one. And if this is somehow upsetting to hear, that only proves the point. Good news!


[1] Cf. “Those who have even a preliminary acquaintance with the structure and laws of the inner spheres of existence know that complete isolation of human beings is a figment of imagination. Whether they desire it or not, all persons are constantly acting and interacting upon each other by their very existence, even when they do not establish any contact on the physical plane. There are no limits to the spreading of the influence of man. The magnetic influence of the subtle spheres knows no barriers of national frontiers or any other conventional limitations. Good thoughts as well as evil thoughts, cheerful moods as well as gloomy moods, noble and expansive feelings as well as petty and narrow emotions, unselfish aspiration as well as selfish ambition—all these have a tendency to spread out and influence others, even when they are not expressed in words or deeds. The world of mental life is as much a unified system as the world of gross matter” (Meher Baba, Discourses).

[2] Cf. sarcasm, from sarkazein, literally ‘to strip off the flesh.’