Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Blame Game Rides Again

It started before the names of the dead had even been released.  It started well before we knew anything about the cause of death -- we still don't.  Commenters on blogs and news sites all over the Web, including this one, have an almost universal contempt for those who died or were injured at the Angel Valley Resort sweatbox on Friday, and for James Ray, the man who ran the five-day retreat.

A commenter on this site wrote,
Some people are idiots - my highly educated (one bachelor's and two masters degrees ) sister went to a sweat lodge a couple of years ago at a spa in New Mexico, and hated it - at least she came out alive! She has more money than she knows what to do with - although the tragedy of this incident is undeniable the bottom line is - some people are just plain stupid! They should have spent their money on world hunger, ending war and stopping genocide. They would probably till [sic] be alive. . .
Over at the Houston Chronicle, writers were equally harsh with the dead and with Ray:
He's another one of Oprah's gurus - beware the gods and gurus. Particularly the ones on Oprah.
Here is [sic} Houston, we have people who die from heat stroke because they simply don't have air conditioning, and yet these people THOUGHT it was safe to FAST for 36 hours, then eat a breakfast, fast for another 7 hours, and then go into a sweat lodge for at least 2 MORE HOURS??? I can only HOPE AND PRAY these fools are charged with criminal negligence. People from up North have NO IDEA how dangerous this can be unless they have lived a summer down here.
I don't see why people purposefully would put themselves through something like that. Either way, I think that those who signed up for something like this are solely responsible for what happens to them at one of these retreats.

I find this way of thinking really troubling.  First of all, I know that people all over the world put themselves through all sorts of things in the name of religious or spiritual renewal.  People spend thousands of dollars to their churches, synagogues and mosques and no one bats an eye.  We participate in ritual fasting (full and partial), self-denial of various kinds, rituals of cleansing and penitence, and much more in the Abrahamic religions.  We don't judge the people who do it, because we recognize, on some level, that everyone needs a spiritual home and a way to find meaning in the world.  We know that in order to be helpful and caring and supportive to the rest of the world, we need to care for ourselves, so we don't channel every single penny to the homeless or Darfur, but spend some on our own spirits.

What's more, this wasn't the first retreat Ray had hosted.  I'm sure it wasn't the first sweatbox ritual he had done.  He himself was in the sweatbox when it happened.  Whether it was a smart idea or not, others had done it and come out alive.  On the face of it, then, it wasn't deadly.

But let's just say, for the sake of argument, that Ray is a charlatan and the people who went on this retreats were idiots.  Let's accept, just for the moment, that no one in this situation had a brain in their head.  Is the punishment for being stupid now the death penalty?  Are we really willing to make the leap from "that wasn't a good idea" to "they got what they deserved?"  Do people deserve to die for making a foolish choice?

Most of us would say no, if you think about it that way.  So why are we so quick to judge?  And why, in particular, are we quick to judge the participants, perhaps even more than the leaders?  Because we want to reassure ourselves that this could not happen to us.  If the participants are morons who did something no rational person should do, and we believe ourselves to be rational, then this couldn't happen to us.  If their choices were unambiguously bad, to the point that any fool could have predicted the outcome, then we would not have made those choices.  What's more, we will not make those choices, and we will not end up dead.

We go to enormous lengths to convince ourselves that we can prevent all bad things from happening.  We like the illusion of control.  And it may well be that this tragedy was preventable.  But we'd better be careful where we throw our judgement, blame and disdain.  When trauma comes knocking at our door, people may very well throw it back at us.


Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle

Blog Archive