1999: Staplers, Slayers, and Placing the Blame

I adore Katharine Hepburn for a lot of reasons, but one in particular is this quote:

“We are taught you must blame your father, your sisters, your brothers, the school, the teachers – but never blame yourself. It’s never your fault. But it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change you’re the one who has got to change.”

Growing up, I was actually taught the way Hepburn wanted people to be taught in that you need to blame yourself first, then only when given enough evidence to the contrary can you place the blame on someone else. It wasn’t something anyone in particular taught me, I just tended to pick it up from TV and books where the lesson often is placing blame anywhere but squarely on your shoulders is a bad thing to do.

This has been an incredibly useful mindset for many facets of my life. In school and at work, I do my best to get everything done with as few excuses as possible. It has made me a skilled editor, as I don’t really pull punches if I think changes can improve things. I may be the bad guy, but I am my own worst enemy, so adding a foe or two to the list doesn’t matter that much.

I know many people, myself included, who have been in jobs they can’t stand. They come up with excuses to stay, place blame on others, and ultimately keep suffering. This is why the movie Office Space stands up so well over the years. Mike Judge’s comedy is every white collar worker’s dream—admitting that the system is stupid to your superiors, acknowledging you pretend to work a lot of the time, and beating the shit out of the printer.

It may seem like a mundane comedy, but at its heart, this movie is a fantasy about being able to take control of your situation and turn it into something positive with virtually no repercussions. Whether you’re a waitress lacking the requisite flare or a middle manager at an IT company, it is up to you to fix your situation, your crappy boss, and your crappy job.

In reality though, sometimes you can’t just walk away from something you hate. It is one of the other defining differences between Xennials and Snake People. My parents raised me to believe you should be grateful for any and every job you are offered. Your job sucks? It’s supposed to. Nowadays, I constantly see people a little younger than me talking about how your work should be something you love, as if it is a requisite of employment that you not only get paid and get benefits, you have to be emotionally fulfilled by it too. While I think we all agree that would be nice, there are still those of us who consider a job a means to pay the bills, not a life-defining decision about who you are deep down inside. Sometimes I have a job just to have a job. For a while I thought my job had to be one of the key things defining who I am. But not everyone needs a career path that brings then more zen than a yoga retreat.

Those of us who can be a little too complacent can stand to learn something about blaming ourselves for our own misery and taking too much negativity because we feel we deserve it from Office Space though. Just look at poor Milton, who never speaks up and by bearing the brunt of it, only has worse and worse things heaved upon him. It may be satire, but that is how the work place and life really is. The more you prove you are a capable human being, the more will be expected of you. They’ll even take your cake and eat it too.

The more responsibility you shoulder, the more it seems easy to place the blame upon yourself. This is one of Buffy Summers’ biggest flaws on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve spoken before about late-season Buffy and her emotional struggles, but really from the time she was told she is the one and only slayer, she has heaped the literal responsibility of the entire world on her shoulders. So, when things go poorly, she blames herself. When people die, she blames herself. And when all she wants is a break like going to homecoming, she gets taught a lesson in the form of vampire mercenaries trying to murder her. When she decides to finally let a guy in and care about someone and have sex with him, he literally turns into an evil monster hellbent on killing her and her friends and the only way she can fix it is to murder her first love herself.

If Office Space is a fantasy about shirking responsibility, Buffy is a horror story not about monsters and vampire, but the unrelenting unfairness of adulthood. Milton’s series of foibles may be funny, but they aren’t that far removed from Buffy Summers, who is stuck with a gig she never asked for and constantly has to sacrifice as a result. Difference is, Buffy can’t quit being the slayer. In many ways, her situation is blameless. She didn’t get herself into this mess, but she can’t get out of it either. For those of us used to putting all the blame on our shoulders, these situations are way worse than a soul-sucking job. You know when you’re Milton that, should push comes to shove, you can say enough. When you’re in a jam you’re desperate to get out of but there is absolutely nothing you can do except put your head down and keep going, you try to figure out if there is some cosmic reason you’re in the boat you’re in, which only makes things tougher.

What is great about Buffy is creator Joss Whedon’s unrelenting honesty about how cruel life can be. I know, it doesn’t sound great, but as a show that was at the heart of my high school viewing, being reassured by this show that, yes, things are often hard for no real reason, so don’t feel like you are to blame for it is exactly what I needed.

While I am with Hepburn in the sense I would much prefer to have a friend who tends to blame themselves too much rather than too little. I find it is much better to be too self-critical than too self-assured, or else you’ll end up with too many evenings like the one described in Lit’s My Own Worst Enemy. While the song is mostly about drinking too much and blacking out, the sentiment that we kick the living shit out of ourselves from time to time resonates with sober people too. Even though I put the blame on myself for a lot of things, I still end up making stupid mistakes and know I am making them as I do it, but sometimes you just can’t help yourself.

While Drunk Jess (yes, I consider her a person unto herself) can do some dumb stuff, her complete disregard for consequences can be helpful from time to time, as she can be more forward, more assured, less guarded. Most of the time I rue her existence, but like any good worst enemy, she certainly challenges me and my life choices and, in the end, what doesn’t kill me with alcohol poisoning makes me stronger.

That is the best part of being a self-blamer. As you scrutinize every facet of your being all the time, you try and get better. When I go through a break up or I change jobs, I will exercise more, write more, read more, all in an attempt of self-betterment in case the reason behind the problem is me. I wish it could be like Office Space and I could just scream eff it and be done with the things not working in my life. But seven or eight viewings of all those Buffy episodes reminds me that, like Buffy, I can train all I want, shield myself and prepare as much as I can and, while I can try to prevent myself from being my own worst enemy, I am never going to be able to stop bad things from happening and there will always be instances where there is no one to blame.

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