The difference between reasons and excuses is one that needs to be evaluated regularly, especially in interpersonal relations. At times we don’t even consciously know our own motivations and can possibly mix up the two concepts.
Reasons are causative; the reason something happens is as a result of something else having happened. “I am angry because you are late” − the cause of my anger is your lateness; if you weren’t late then I wouldn’t be angry.
Excuses are not causative but rather post-facto justifications. “I don’t like you because you are always late.” The truth is that if you were to curb your tardy behaviour, I would find another ‘reason’ to dislike you. The excuse justifies why I feel a certain way, but it doesn’t explain it. Therefore the use of excuses ensures that dysfunctional relationships can never be healed because the parties don’t know what the real issues are.
When we use excuses to justify our feelings towards others, we present them with a moving target. Even if they are capable of changing their behaviour in one area, suddenly a new goal will need to be addressed.
Often there are cases where we don’t know why we don’t like someone so we drum up a series of excuses to somehow justify our position. Perhaps such a case would be best served by accepting that the problem could be ourselves, rather than the other person. If I really don’t know why I don’t like someone, it is possible that they touch a deep and often unconscious nerve. We don’t know what it is or how to deal with it, so we find an excuse to dislike the individual − it’s much easier.
Accepting responsibility for our feelings towards others is a crucial step in building emotional intelligence.
In this week’s parsha we are told that “The nation were k’mitoninim, complaining in an evil manner before Hashem.” It is not clear what the source of their complaint is, so the Midrash suggests that the term ‘mitoninim’ is based in the root word to find an excuse. They were looking for an excuse to kvetch. Their pure motives were that they were struggling living in a God-conscious environment. The spiritual atmosphere of the Israelite camp was too much to bear − a spiritual cabin fever of sorts − so this gave birth to a series of excuses that plagued the Israelites throughout their time in the wilderness.
It would have been more desirable to question their unconscious discomfort with spiritual life, and therein they may have found the real reason for their feelings.