The Red Bull Defense

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 07, 2011

"He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else."
Benjamin Franklin

Stephen Coffeen killed his 83-year old father at home by smothering him with a pillow. He never denied his crime, not even once. But what he did deny was the responsibility for his action. 

Every now and then I come across an astonishing example of someone making an excuse for his/her behavior. We have all done it from time to time. We didn't get the job done because we ran out of time. We were late because the traffic was heavy. We forgot because we had so much on our minds. But I don't think I have ever heard a more preposterous excuse than the one Stephen Coffeen gave.

The murder took place in Florida. Stephen had not seen his father in more than 10 years and had just made the long trip there from California. He was extremely tired. Tom, Stephen's brother, was at Disney in Orlando and when he arrived back at his father's home, Stephen wouldn't let him inside. Tom knew something was terribly wrong. 

According to Tom, Stephen admitted to killing their father but he first said it was in self defense. After Stephen was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, his high profile attorney changed the plea from self-defense to an insanity defense. He now claims that Stephen snapped after arriving extremely tired from his trip from California. And it was sleep deprivation and Red Bull, a high energy drink, which put him over the edge in a "psychotic episode." 

As yet, we don't know if the judge will accept this plea, but if he does Stephen will go to the Chattahoochee mental institution for a minimum of six months evaluation. Tom fears that Stephen will be out on the streets in six months and he believes his brother will come after him to finish the job. 

I appreciated the way Mike Krzyzewski, the legendary Duke University basketball coach, framed a recent loss of his nationally ranked Blue Devils to a lesser ranked team. He didn't make excuses for the loss by saying his team didn't play up to their potential. He didn't blame the referees or injuries or anything else. If he had said any of those things he would have belittled the playing quality of the team that beat them. He simply said, "They played better than we did tonight. They deserved to win and I congratulate them." We all admire that kind of class. 

How easy it is to try to turn our attention away from that for which we are personally responsible. I guess that's why I heard an old professor say years ago, "There is no such thing as a hard exam; only an unprepared student." 

I once heard of a king who wanted to go to war to get more land. His aid started the decree, "Whereas in the Providence of God our king..." But the king interrupted him and shouted, "Oh stop that. Just say the king wants more land." 

Dave Del Dotto aptly said, "No one ever excused his way to success." We may try to defer blame, but each of us must accept the responsibility for our actions. As someone said, "Excuses (really) are the nails used to build a house of failure." I also agree with Steven Grayhm who said, "Excuses are the tools with which persons build for themselves great monuments of nothing." 

Whatever we do, let's not blame caffeine or sugar or sleep for our actions. It is true that substance abuse may dull our ability to make good decisions, but were we not the ones who decided to use that substance in the first place? 

If I jump out of a 50-story building I may try to blame gravity for my demise, but most of us would ask me why I took that step in the first place. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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