Ozzie Watters was having an amazing start to her day. She and her mother, Jo Watters, were riding down their three-mile county road, sharing sweet moments of laughter when the day took a turn for the worse.
The pillar of smoke rising into the air drew their attention. As they got closer, they could see the smoke was from a house on fire. And the next few moments were a blur. Shots rang, and Ozzie’s mother died right in front of her.
When Ozzie told me her harrowing story of survival, my jaw was on the ground. She was wounded and narrowly escaped the gunman before he took his own life.
The news headlines told her epic escape story. But in my conversation with Ozzie, she told me more of the aftermath.
The fallout of the shooting was almost too difficult to bear. Because the gunman took his own life, Ozzie could not show him how he did not break her. Though he was gone, however, he still had control in this situation. She was bitter at him, that he, in her own words, “took the easy way out,” while she had to deal with the fallout.
She didn’t experience joy until a talk with a pastor led her to let go of him. After that conversation, she decided she couldn’t let him have control over how she felt anymore.
If you have been a victim of a terrible tragedy in the past, there is something to learn from Ozzie’s story. You cannot change what happened, but you can change your present and your future so it’s not defined by your past.
This is how you can turn away from blame, which can cripple the soul, and design a resilient, more joyful future.
What blame does to us
Blame is defined as assigning responsibility for a fault or wrongdoing. When we blame someone, we give them responsibility.
But here’s where blame gets in the way of joy: unhealthy blame leaves us powerless. We forfeit over responsibility to the party at fault, which leaves no power left for us. And when we have no power, we have no control. The party at fault has all the control.
When terrible tragedies occur, we cannot rebuild our life if someone else is holding the strings. We blame the responsible party because it makes us feel good in the short-term. But in the long-term, it leaves us shattered because while we think we have a semblance of control, we actually gave it all up.
Here’s the point I want to make with this article: there’s a better solution than blame if you want a more joyful present and future.
Before I share this practice, let’s discuss the difference between healthy and unhealthy blame.
When it’s okay to blame
When someone has done something wrong, that person should be held responsible for his/her action.
Suppose you are doing a group project, and one person didn’t do their assignment in the group. It is appropriate to hold the person responsible for his/her action. This is healthy blame.
The reason this is healthy blame is because you still have power and control.
Unhealthy blame, however, is when you hold another party responsible for your emotions. Once you blame the other party for how you feel, you give up your power and control. Now all of a sudden, the party at fault controls how you feel. You are sad because the group member let you down.
The trick here is not to ignore how you feel. You are sad, and that’s appropriate. The trick is acknowledging your own power in the situation and keeping it within your control.
Being a victim vs. playing the role
In their book, Safe People, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend define a victim as someone with no power.
When terrible things happen to you, you have no power in that circumstance. You are a victim.
In being a victim, it’s okay to feel sad, angry, hurt, confused, etc. It would be abnormal to ignore the pain you feel.
But after some time, you will regain power once again. You will be in control of your circumstances. You will not be owned by what happened.
I call this your inflection point. At some point after something terrible has happened to you, you will reach a point where you have power once again.
You play the victim role when you use that power to remain powerless.
You choose to forfeit all of your power to the party at fault because it gives you the illusion of control. When you are the victim, people do take care of you. People do come to your rescue. And people do give you the sympathy that feels good short-term. But in the meantime, it hurts you inside. The party at fault still has control over how you feel. After the inflection point, if you are still bitter, the party at fault holds the strings.
Fortunately, there’s a better way to keep our power and move our life in the direction of joy.
How to take ownership
When I left my business, I thought I would be happy. But I wasn’t. Instead, I entered into a season of blame. Even though I was happy with my decision, I placed the blame for my depression on other people. I kept replaying moments of my past and said, “that’s the reason why I’m here.”
In my season of blame, I knew I had to escape the story I was telling myself. It was sinking me back into a place I didn’t want to be. I wanted to enjoy the present, but instead, I was replaying the past.
I was playing the victim role by forfeiting my power over to people who’ve wronged me in the past.
It was then I turned to Stoic philosophy. In my days of deepest trials growing up, I used Stoic philosophy to build a resilient mind. I was reminded of a powerful principle I learned while growing up:
I can only control what is under my skin. It is not the act that disturbs me, but how I feel about the act that disturbs me.
This helped me see where I have power in a situation.
Many people can’t reframe events for joy because they’ve given up their power to the other party. This power is the ability to choose how you feel.
Again, I’m not saying you have to change how you feel about a negative experience. If someone beat you up and that makes you feel sad, don’t ignore the sadness. It’s there. When you are a victim, embrace those emotions.
But after some time, you’ll reach an inflection point. At this inflection point, you’ll have power once again. You play the victim role when you use that power to remain powerless. You forfeit everything and stay locked in sadness and bitterness.
You keep your power and take ownership of the situation by saying, “I’m sad this happened, but I’m going to come back from it stronger than ever.” You have now assigned a different meaning to the negative experience.
Instead of playing the victim role, which is only good for the short-term, you can take ownership and choose how you feel about what happened. This is what it means to assign a different meaning to a negative experience.
The power of assigning meaning
We get to choose what events will mean to us. It’s a power we have, and we forfeit that power if we let the other party that wronged us keep control over how we feel.
We have the powerful ability to say, “We will come back from this. That person has no control over how I feel today. That person has no power at all.” This is how we bounce back and reclaim our future for joy.
If the other person still holds the strings over how we feel, we have no hope of getting better, no hope of bouncing back. We become resilient and joyful once we assign a different meaning to the event — one that gives us power again.
Now remember: when you are a victim, you won’t be able to assign a different meaning to the event. The best course of action is to grieve. But after a while, you will reach an inflection point. At this inflection point, you have a choice: give power to the person who wronged you and continue to blame them for how you feel, or take back power and choose how you feel.
A joyful future
October 6th, 2012 will forever be the worst day of Ozzie’s life. She cannot change what happened. But what happened did change her.
She was stuck in bitterness at the gunman for so long. It weighed on her spirit and left her depressed. She couldn’t imagine a future where she could not show the gunman that he didn’t get her. She blamed him, but suffered a fallout from knowing there would be no justice.
The gunman still controlled how she felt.
She didn’t reach her inflection point until she heard a pastor speak. It was then she realized, she could either play the victim role by using her power to remain powerless over how she feels, or she could choose how she felt.
She chose to let go of the gunman. In that moment, she chose a new meaning: what the gunman did was wrong, but he has no control over how she comes back stronger than ever.
This new meaning did not change what happened. It did not condone the gunman’s actions. But it did allow her to bounce back and reclaim her future for joy.
Joy will not happen instantly. When you have been wronged, you’ll feel that for a long time. But eventually, there will be an inflection point in your story, where you get to decide whether you want to take ownership of your power.
If the other person keeps the power, you’ll stay in the victim role, which might feel good for the moment. But this has long-term damaging effects.
You were meant to keep your power and use it for good. You get to assign a different meaning to negative experiences. You get to keep joy as a possibility for the future. And that is something no one can or should take away.