Accepting Responsibility for Our Actions

M. Margaret - Waconia, Minnesota
Entered on August 17, 2005

“I just slammed right into him,” the Swede said. He sounded pretty happy about it, but then no one had been hurt and he was just answering the insurance adjuster’s questions. I was working at a car rental agency transcribing interviews of people involved in accidents with rental cars. Over and over I heard people […]

Age Group: 30 - 50

“I just slammed right into him,” the Swede said. He sounded pretty happy about it, but then no one had been hurt and he was just answering the insurance adjuster’s questions.

I was working at a car rental agency transcribing interviews of people involved in accidents with rental cars. Over and over I heard people justify their accidents. “I wouldn’t have rear-ended her if she hadn’t stopped when the light turned yellow,” or “I was trying to merge and the guy in the blue car wouldn’t get out of my way.”

Then one day I transcribed the tape of the interview with the Swede. The claims adjuster asked the token question: “Was there anything the other driver could have done to avoid the accident?”

That’s when he said it. “Nope. Nothing he could do. I just slammed right into him.” He sounded pleased to be able to set the adjuster straight.

This guy didn’t have any trouble accepting all of the responsibility for his actions, but most of us do. Chronically late, I can always blame my tardiness on a train or traffic. I have a friend who didn’t get a promotion because his boss hates him, not because he calls in sick every time the temperature is between 75 and 85 degrees.

Maybe the blame trait is inborn. I remember when my son was a toddler and I asked him who had spilled water in my bedroom. He looked at me wide-eyed and said, “Roe did it.” Roe, our Springer Spaniel looked guilty out of habit. But my bedroom door had been closed and Roe, brilliant as he was, was not dexterous enough to open it. Why did my son lie? It’s not like anything horrible had ever happened to him because of a mishap in the past.

The Swede’s words occasionally come back to me, as they did last winter. I was driving to work on slippery roads. I had to make a right-hand turn at an intersection whose light had been green every time I’d arrived there in the past. This time, it was red, with a pretty Chrysler Sebring stopped in the turn lane. I hit the brakes and my tail end shimmied. “Move it, you idiot,” I thought before the front left corner of my car hit the Sebring. He’s the idiot, notice.

Several days later, the claims adjuster called.

“Was there anything the other driver could have done to avoid the accident?” she said.

It was tempting, not because my rates might increase and not because I would get in trouble, but because if I could blame the other driver, I wouldn’t feel so foolish for running into a stopped vehicle. And sure, the driver of the Sebring could have prevented the accident. He could have pulled into traffic, or he could have driven onto the shoulder. I’d only needed another foot to stop. Then I remembered a cheery voice with a Swedish accent, and I said, “Nope, I just ran right into him.”