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Don’t Blame Others for Your Failures—You Own Them

Corbin Bernsen’s Story

(from Fathers Say by Joe Pellegrino and Joe Battaglia)

My father wasn’t a saint, not by a long shot. He did a great

many things that I believe damaged our family, not the

least of which being less than forthcoming about his “activities”

outside of the family. That said, when he did offer pearls

of wisdom, they somehow had a strange and powerful impact

and carried quite a punch. They were, against all odds, “simple

truths,” perhaps born out of a need to equalize the many lies in

other aspects of his life.

From an early age, with his help, I learned to deal with mortality—

death really—and the overabundance of fear I had on

the subject. His words were always calming, but somehow didn’t

leave the long-lasting impression I had hoped for. We spoke of

hard work and the importance of goals. He introduced me to

church and prayer and the Word of God. He was the president

of my Little League and took me to Dodger games; he taught me

the mechanics of the sport even though he was pretty clumsy,

and not at all athletic. He also cooked a mean Thanksgiving

dinner and invited strangers into our house to share the meal.

All good stuff to be sure.

But there is one thing he taught me—or rather, guided me

through in my teens—that has had the most profound and

long-lasting effect. As I stated before, he wasn’t the most faithful

husband and that took its toll on my mother. She became an

alcoholic—a very mean drunk. Not pretty for anyone, let alone

your mother. So, naturally, during my teen years I started to

blame everyone—her, him, anyone in shouting distance—for

my own shortcomings and failures. Add to all of this, it was the

sixties, and drugs and drinking didn’t make surviving your teenage

years any easier. It was, best as I could remember, a state of

serious confusion.

Most of all, I blamed my mom. Even though I knew the root

of her discontent was my father’s behavior, I blamed her. She

was the one in my face, clearly half out of her mind, screaming,

shouting, punching, stumbling, and not arriving home on any

given day until well after she was expected. Talk about fear! Of

course her accusations about my father were just that: accusations

of a drunk. I knew in the back of my mind that my dad

held some of the responsibility, but I could never determine or

carve out the various pieces of the “blame pie.”

As far as I was concerned, my grades, my inability to have a

girlfriend, even my zits were all a result of having a drunk for a

mother (and maybe a cheater for a father). “Yeah, this is all their

fault!” And that felt good, the blame game. Sure makes it easier

on yourself.

Then, on a very dark night, both literally and internally, my

father came into my room uninvited and laid out the simple

truth: “Don’t blame others for your failures—you own them.”

It was about as close as he had come to admitting some of the

lies he’d been selling over the years. But more importantly, I

think he was addressing how I blamed having a mother who

was an alcoholic for the current failures in my life and the bleak

outlook I had begun to develop. “If you fail, it’s on you. If you

succeed, it’s on you.”

It took a while for me to digest, maybe because it was so simple

and at first appeared as just another “short answer” to a big

question, as he had done so often when confronted about his

personal life. I think I might have said, “Yeah, thanks. Now get

out,” and he did. But then I began to think about it—again that

simplicity: Don’t blame others for your failures—you own them. It

didn’t take long to realize this was a basic truth. Sure, maybe it

was born of a man trying to ask for forgiveness in some way, but

it was the truth nonetheless, and so very evident.

My life changed from that night forward. I still catch myself

trying to blame others for my own shortcomings and somehow

it never sticks, never rings true, from the moment I utter the

words or think them. It’s an excuse, a way to deflect the truth

that I am the one to blame for what comes up short in my life.

And conversely, I reward myself with the knowledge that when

I succeed, while others have played a role at various times, that’s

“my win,” and I’m not afraid to pat myself on the back … or

thank my father.

That was almost fifty years ago. My father died a decade ago,

and I don’t think he ever offered another meaningful morsel of

wisdom after that, nothing that had such a profound impact on

my life. That said, to some degree, I was able to erase some of

the bitter taste in my mouth for the things he had done because

of this single gift he had given me. Oddly enough, I can think

of a handful of times later in life he actually forgot his own

words and secretly blamed others for some of his own failures.

He never voiced it, however, and silently slipped into old age

with secrets still buried and burdens never lifted. But that’s often

the way it is: the teacher who doesn’t heed his own words. Odd.

As he neared the end of his life, I tried to recall this conversation

with him and how it had impacted my life, but he

didn’t seem to remember, or perhaps simply chose to not make

anything of it so that its simplicity and truth in that moment

in time were not diminished by praise a half century later. Or it

was fleeting and just a single truth that somehow “slipped out”

of his mouth at a most critical moment in my life.

It was, as I have found throughout life, one of those simple

moments, short and sweet, brought into existence at the perfect

time, and that has the longest lasting effect. I love you, Dad. I

forgive you. I thank you.

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