Making excuses for our actions, or lack of them, is almost part of human nature. But is it acceptable? Glenis Lindley gives her opinion.
“I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law and headed over an embankment.” “The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.” “I started to slow down but the traffic was more stationary than I thought.”
The above statements, reputedly samples from genuine insurance claims, set me thinking about excuses we make.
Let’s be honest, accepting responsibility for one’s actions and admitting one’s mistakes or acknowledging foolishness is difficult. There aren’t many people who willingly admit to making a mistake, who unprompted own up to wrongdoing or take responsibility for their actions. It’s far easier to devise an excuse. Face it, when you make a mistake, the first thought that passes through your mind is, Is there anyone else I can blame?
Perhaps the exception was George Washington, first president of the United States of America, who was renowned for his truthfulness, even as a politician.
Perhaps it was a habit he found hard to break. Even in the Antipodes we’re familiar with his famous words when asked if he chopped down that tree: “Yes, father, I cannot tell a lie… . I chopped down the cherry tree.” Or so the story goes. And, because of his honesty, young George avoided the deserved punishment.
Making an excuse is to not accept personal responsibility and shift the blame to somewhere it doesn’t belong. As such, it’s in the same family as dishonesty and lying.
For the practised, it’s a habit that usually begins in early life with excuses for not doing one’s homework or not being on time, or for avoidable accidents. They’re the invention of fearful children. As simplistic as they sound to adults, explanations like, “The dog ate my homework,” or, “It was in my shirt, and mum put it in the washing machine,” enable children, like young George, to avoid the deserved consequences of their actions (or lack of them).
Then, as the excuser matures, they become manipulative in their approach, more devious, even pathological in their reasoning. And while at their core excuses are merely well-dressed lies, in the minds of some they are acceptable.
Over the years some profound statements in respect to excuses have been made. Here’s a few:
- “An excuse is worse than a lie, for an excuse is a lie, guarded” (Alexander Pope)
- “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else” (Benjamin Franklin)
- “We have 40 million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse” (Rudyard Kipling)
- “Bad excuses are worse than none” (Thomas Fuller)
- And, finally, from an unknown author, “Don’t make excuses, make good.”
Sadly, we may try to make good, but it’s a fact of life, so often we rely on excuses to cover our own human failings.
We graduate from homework excuses to reasons for getting late to work. Or for not going at all: “My agoraphobia is troubling me, and I’m afraid to leave the house.” (But their fear isn’t so strong that it prevents them going to the beach or snow-skiing.) “My alarm failed to go off because we had a power failure, so I slept in.”
In the courts, where there is a real danger of having expensive and most unpalatable, imposed consequences despite one’s best inventions to avoid sanction, so excuses are turned into “reasons,” carelessness is camouflaged, and “mitigating circumstances” stretch credulity.
A former Gold Coast judge, Robert Hall, says he heard them all during his time on the bench, from “I did it because my wife/girlfriend/boyfriend left me,” to “The pressures got to me.”
On one occasion a lawyer argued in front of Hall, “My client had driven, only because he was drunk. He wouldn’t have done so otherwise.” Then there was the client with a 0.39 BAC reading who used the excuse, “He was so drunk he couldn’t have formed the intention to drive.” (He was indeed so drunk, he was found unconscious in the middle of an intersection slumped over the wheel with his head resting on the horn. When police opened the door he fell to the roadway.) Then there was a larger-than-life personality who blamed a “spiked pavlova” for his over-the-limit reading! And another, who when asked why he exceeded the speed limit by 90 km/h, replied, “[It’s] the problem with these cars; they go so fast.”
Parish priests and ministers, who you’d like to think could expect the truth from their flocks, also get to hear some whoppers, especially for avoiding church:
- There was a religious program on TV, so I watched that instead.
- I’ve worked hard all week; I’m too tired to listen to a sermon.
- It’s the only day I get to sleep in.
- I feel closer to God outdoors.
- The church is full of hypocrites.
- I don’t need to prove I’m a Christian by going to church.
But seriously, there are areas of real concern, such as in child and spousal abuse, where the most common excuse given is alcohol (and drugs to a lesser extent). In many cases of “boys behaving badly,” the culprit is overindulgence, resulting in disorderly, immoral and criminal behaviour, for example, the scandals involving footballers, which have made headlines, with disastrous consequences for all concerned. For the record, in any court—literal or that of public opinion—alcohol is never an excuse.
Quite apart from the hazardous and harmful effects that excessive alcohol has upon the indulger’s body and mind, usually decent individuals will transform into mindless morons after a few drinks, blemishing their reputations, risking their relationships and jeopardising their careers.
The path to infidelity is also littered with excuses. It’s easy, in a close relationship, for a husband or wife to experience things that can easily be rationalised into reasons, but are only ever excuses for self-indulgence:
- My wife doesn’t show me enough affection at home, so I started looking elsewhere.
- I didn’t plan it; the girl just started flirting with me, then it happened.
- She spent too much time with the kids, so I felt neglected.
- He always had to have things his way.
We all have inherited our deceitful ways. It’s called sin. The first sin committed resulted in an excuse—“The devil made me do it!” (Genesis 3:12, 13)—which was quickly followed by another—“It was the woman you gave me who brought me some, and I ate it.”
The Bible also tells us to resist temptation. James says, “Remember, when someone wants to do wrong it is never God who is tempting him… . Temptation is the pull of man’s own evil thoughts and wishes” (James 1:13, 14*).
The Bible is littered with examples of broken promises, lies and excuses. Moses, who was trained as a leader in Pharoah’s court, when when asked by God to go and deliver Israel, pleaded, “O Lord, I’m just not a good speaker. I never have been, and I’m not now, even after you have spoken to me, for I have a speech impediment… . Lord, please! Send someone else” (Exodus 4:10, 13).
In the New Testament, Jesus told the story of guests invited to a wedding (heaven), but who gave excuses for not coming (see Matthew 22:1-13). One had a farm to look after, another his merchandise, and yet another a new wife. So the king said to his servants, “The wedding feast is ready, and the guests I invited aren’t worthy of the honour. Now go out to the street corners and invite everyone you see” (verse 8).
Why would you make an excuse when God invites you to share heaven with Him? A lifelong habit of making excuses, perhaps? For avoiding facing reality? For living a life in denial? That would be one excuse too many.