The Bomb, the Family, and the Fundamental Attribution Error
Friday, April 19, 2013 at 2:08PM
Elena Taurke in Atonement, Healing, PsychoZen Meets Life, Violence

"I'm glad he's ok."  "What a relief!"  "So glad your family escaped the horror."    Photo by Aaron "tango" Tang, courtesy of Creative Commons

Finishing the Boston Marathon 50 minutes before the blast, my ex-husband and father of my beloved child was well clear of the bomb that killed three, seriously injured many, and scared the crap out of a whole bunch more.  Trauma proliferated as we shook our heads and huddled with our families.  Thank G-d it wasn't us.

 But it was.  

 The Zen Gatha of Atonement goes like this:

 All Evil Karma Ever Committed by Me Since of Old,

On Account of My Beginning-less Greed, Anger, and Ignorance,

Born of My Body, Mouth, and Thought,

Now I Atone For It All!

It's one of my favorite chants because there is no blame, nothing personal.  If it is beginning-less then you certainly didn't start it.  I didn't start it.  It's not my fault.  It's just a continuing thing.  And even though it is "Born of My Body," etcetera, "Since of Old" certainly implies that it was way before I intended anything.  I didn't mean to do it.  On the other hand, I take full responsibility; "I Atone For It All."  (If you want, you can hear me sing this on Hurricane Hits.) 

The Atonement Gatha is the perfect antidote to what social psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error.  We humans tend to blame other humans for stuff they do, yet blame the world for stuff we ourselves do.  So, the fat guy is fat cuz he's lazy and I am thin because I work out, not because of my genes.  But if I'm fat, it's my genes.  Many call this big doozy of a mistake Fundamental or Core because, really, when you think about it, it is the cause of everything.  

I didn't plant the bomb.  I am not a racist.  I didn't cause global warming.  

But I did.  We all did.  My Zen teacher, Enkyo Roshi, offers the perspective that our crazy opulent lifestyles are directly responsible for poverty and injustice in distant lands.  In factories far away, people with no choices make widgets for our gadgets.  Maybe I'm reaching here, but what if some of those people become angry enough that they resort to terrorism, having no other 'constructive' way to right the wrong?  Whose fault is that?  

The Attribution Error, in tandem with the Just World Hypothesis (these are wikipedia links but they are decent, succinct descriptions of a huge topic), causes us to believe that we earned our wealth.  Those blokes over in Indonesia or China--our attention might flutter briefly on their misery before we re-establish our mental right to wear the t-shirt they made for a nickel.  Because, really, what can we do?  I can't stop planting the bomb if I didn't plant it. 

But there is excellent news if you believe in complex causation.  If it really is all inter-connected, as people realize now and then, then all you have to do is concentrate on what is in front of you.  I guarantee you that sometime today someone near you will blame someone else.  Maybe someone in your beloved family is blaming another someone in your family.  Right there is your power to change the world.  You can collude and it will feel good for both of you; for the moment you will join with each other against the enemy.  Or you can pause, step back and start with "I don't know."  Just that.   It is simple and not at all easy.  When it happens to me I feel a strong physical urge to roll my eyes, chuckle with bitter mirth, and establish superiority.  If I don't respond to this urge, I feel momentarily anxious, vulnerable.  That's the spot.  Stay.  Just a little.  This is how we change the world.  

Article originally appeared on PsychoZen (
See website for complete article licensing information.