It isn’t easy forgiving myself for not making her happy, and it’s even harder forgiving myself for the nursing home. The visits for that year and a half will always haunt me, although I know I could not have done otherwise.
My mother and I were never at peace with each other, and the pain still pushes forward and insists, There must have been something you could have said or done that would have made her happy, would have set things right, would have made her, magically, into a loving mother.
But I know there was never anything I could have said or done. She was mentally ill, haunted by a baby sister burned to death in a fire almost ninety years ago; haunted by a wish come true, the wish all children keep secret, that the baby disappear; and haunted by a mother who never forgave her for being the child who lived. She dwelled among demons. Her anguish never had anything to do with me, and I knew that all I could do was save myself. Still, my guilt does not respond willingly to this exoneration. It dies hard.
For thirty years, my mother tried every imagined illness and bit of choreographed helplessness she could in order to force her way into living with us. Her desperate need always was that I be the mother she never had. When one overdose of tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and codeine failed to force me into saying I would take care of her, she overdosed again and again, while the doctors supplied her with all the prescriptions she wanted. When one operation didn’t coerce me, she insisted on another and yet another. I ran to the hospital; I pleaded with the doctors. No one listened. They said it was better to do whatever she wanted because that kept her from becoming hysterical.
Finally, thwarted, frustrated, desperate, my mother planned her final attack. She was willing to risk all; there was nothing left to lose. Again overdosed, she refused to eat. She kept herself barely alive by drinking tea with just enough sugar and milk to provide minimum nourishment. We were down to the wire. I either had to stand by and watch her kill herself, or I had to make a move, and so did the doctors. This time they admitted her to the psychiatric unit of the hospital, and from there she went into the nursing home.
I could have saved her. All I ever had to do was say, “OK, Ma. You can move in. I’ll take care of you.” But I couldn’t do it. I, too, was a motherless child. My pain was too intense, my nightmares too terrifying.
So, I’m still trying to forgive myself. Clinical detachment is for other people’s guilt, not my own. That terrible, nagging, incessant question — Wasn’t there something I could have done? — never relents. It remains in the recesses of my soul, tinging every joy with sadness. The pain, it seems, will only be healed, as would hers have been, by an embrace from a mother and words that will never come: I understand, my precious daughter. I love you. I’ve always loved you. Forgive me.
Park Forest, Illinois
I used to feel somewhat guilty all the time but recently I moved on to anger. The same things that used to depress me and make me feel vaguely anxious now piss me off, and I feel that’s an improvement.
I’m angry that the world is so imperfect (don’t anyone dare tell me it is perfect) and that there is so much human and non-human suffering, and that I can’t stop it. I curse God a lot, usually over personal frustrations. But it’s not just for my own troubles that I curse Him and He knows it — my own problems just catalyze my general anger about things. So I address the Creator directly and I say all kinds of unmentionable things which I would never inflict upon a mere mortal, but I figure He can take it. Don’ t worry about me, though; I don’ t take myself too seriously, and hopefully neither does God. (Fuck Him if He does.)
Today I jaywalked in a strange town. It was at a curious, parallelogram sort of intersection and I had to get to the corner diagonally across from me. The traffic flow was difficult to assess, and the, WALK sign would flash on for only about five seconds at a time, and even then it didn’t look altogether safe. So I moved a bit away from the corner, judged that there were no cars coming from my left, then ran to the yellow lines in the middle of the street, which I took for a narrow island of safety. (They were spaced a good two to three feet apart; it was not as if they were right beside each other.) But then a guy in a car coming from the right (nowhere near me) shouted out, “Whaddya think the light’s there for, asshole!!?” and I watched my emotions at play in a flash. What’s fascinating is that the first one that came up was guilt. Still, within tenths of a second, all I regretted was that he had shot by too quickly for me to flash him the finger.
What can I say? Maybe I was wrong in a way, but don’t you think he deserved the finger?
Such is my attitude these days. Naturally, I won’t pretend that I think it’s especially enlightened (I have not evolved yet to the point where I can transform all of my energies into love), but I will say this: sometimes guilt is merely anger directed inward which could and perhaps should have been directed outward. They’re opposite sides of the same coin, the same force. Directed inward, it is focused and almost certainly damaging. Directed outward, it can be diffused and possibly do no damage at all, especially if there’s no one else around (unless of course you believe that inanimate objects, such as walls and chairs, can feel pain). I think one should be very discriminate in expressing anger, and in particular should take care not to direct anger at people that hasn’t been specifically earned. But it’s a big wide world out there. The ocean, for example, can handle a little thrashing around in. Better than guilt, I swear it.
When I reflected on the basis of all my guilt, I realized it was because I hadn’t given enough. Not enough food, enough advice, enough friendship, enough thought or gratitude or kindness or tears or happiness. Never that I gave too much. Always not enough.
I was mentally ill for five years. I should say “at least five years,” because the dividing line between health and illness is not clear-cut, and sometimes I feel that I was sick all my life and am only now beginning to come out of it.
But I was court-committed to a mental hospital three times during that five-year period, so we can be pretty sure that I wasn’t at the peak of emotional health then. During that time, I felt absolutely no guilt at all. I thought I was absolutely innocent, and people were being mean to me. I thought I was just a victim of circumstance.
Assuming responsibility means knowing when you’re wrong, and that involves guilt. You don’t have to call it that, and you don’t have to wallow in it. But I think guilt is healthy.
Of course, some people have unhealthy consciences and feel too much guilt, but that’s another problem. I didn’t see anyone like that in the insane asylum, and I suspect there aren’t too many people like that in our society.
I’m talking about getting by on the most basic level. Of course, up in the spiritual stratosphere where many of your contributors seem to spend a lot of their time, an entirely different terminology is in order. It’s interesting that the schizophrenic and the mystic are both said to lose their egos, with all the accompanying baggage — like guilt. Thomas Merton said that the schizophrenic is drowning in the ocean that the mystic has learned to swim in.
Most of the people I know seem too self-righteous already. It would be irresponsible to tell them to get rid of their guilt because they’re not at the level where such advice would be meaningful.
In my case, guilt can strike accompanied by mild paranoia, as if others somehow can read my mind and discern inappropriate lustfulness, reprehensible envy, conscious or unconscious hostility. I know this is ridiculous because how could they condemn me for being human — like them — and prone to the apparently more common, less noble, and less exalted emotions? Well, of course they can. I am guilty of this too. Judeo-Christian misinterpretations virtually assure a lack of generosity and compassion. Jesus’ wise advice not to judge anyone, which considerably modified Old Testament vengeful hell-raising, usually falls on willfully obtuse ears from “respectable” exoteric preachers behind the pulpit, regardless of how often it gets repeated. It’s just too satisfying to point the finger. Until we renounce that “guilty pleasure” ourselves, we’d better be prepared to take as well as dish it out.
Ironically and outrageously, I suppose, the incident I feel guiltiest about overall or which stands out in my mind is when I made fun of this guy’s white pointed shoes decorated with fake gold chains, and he heard me. That was a terrible moment. Instant karma.
Can we maintain a “conscience” (which psychotics and sociopaths supposedly don’t have, which is a very good reason to want one), or an inner voice informing us of incipient threats of doing the wrong thing — you know, “he/she felt warning pangs of conscience” — without also possessing the capacity to experience guilt after the wrong thing has been done anyway? I’d like to believe this. I really would. But I direfully suspect that prior knowledge of the awfulness of guilt may function, in our more or less ubiquitous condition of fairly low consciousness, as a good deterrent to sins of inflicting pain. Unfortunately, guilt can be necessary, not just useless and neurotic.
Durham, North Carolina
Back in the early Seventies when I was an art student, I was in the prime of my life. I made beautiful pictures, had beautiful lovers, danced, went to jazz clubs and galleries. . . . Such a life! I was free!
One day at lunch, Teresa Delgado, a Puerto Rican student in our class, just back from a trip to Puerto Rico, realized she couldn’t finish her salad, and asked if anyone wanted it. “I just hope she’s had her shots,” I muttered to somebody under my breath. “I heard that, Barbara,” Teresa said, her words darting out at me like a knife flung from across the room. My heart stopped beating. I’d been found out. The rat I’d always been. My small, slimy, toxic, elitist, racist self. Come on, string me up, I thought. My face was on fire. Nothing that I could ever say to sweet, innocent Teresa could make a bit of difference. I’d never really turned around my programming.
I felt guilty that anyone, anywhere, ever, may have seen me as part of the solution, when I was, quite obviously. . . .
New York, New York
Here’s a list of what I feel guilty about today:
- Beating up my sister in third grade.
- Wearing sunglasses to my poetry class.
- Doing nothing to stop the Senate from voting aid to the contras.
- Being too cheap to buy sea salt.
- Taking four months to read Dead Souls.
- Upstaging Jeff the Guitar Player at the performance of my Proverbs.
- Not calling Michelina.
- Being bored with my girlfriend.
- Not working.
- Living in a co-op apartment.
- Spending all my time at art galleries, parties, poetry readings and free movies while Rome burns.
- Never truly believing in God.
- Not speaking Spanish.
Brooklyn, New York
I once heard John Enright, a California Gestalt therapist, say, “Guilt is the price you pay for holding to values you also want to violate.”
Somehow we orchestrate this splitting of ourselves into two halves. One part wants this, another that. Now, multiple impulses strike me as very natural. Of course we want to do and be many things, and why limit ourselves?
The relative unnaturalness connected to something like guilt, something that feels other than new and unfolding and fresh, stems I think from the attempt to overcontrol Nature within ourselves, or to make one side good and the other bad, or to try maintaining a foolish, lopsided consistency in the eyes of others.
The frequent result is a repetitive flip-flop between one desire and another, or an arrangement where publicly we’re one way and privately, in secret, quite another.
How difficult would it be to acknowledge that each side has its own great value? If I have money and meet someone panhandling, and feel either guilty or resentful according to whether I don’t or do give him a dime, that experience in me tells me a lot. I want to help the guy learn from the consequences of his choices, yet also I want to reach out — two ultimately healing impulses, each in its own way. If I’m happily married and yet attracted to some “other woman,” I needn’t frame the attraction as bad or even threatening. I might instead discover what attracts me and use that information within the marriage.
Something like guilt can give a cue in the direction of how better to value and love what we already have, or are. So here’s to guilt!
Maybe a sense of balance is the surprise we get for acknowledging the naturalness and usefulness of the opposites within.
When I sat down at my typewriter and tried to write about “guilt,” I couldn’t. There was a wall in front of me — vast, blank, unscalable; I felt like a sand crab trying to comprehend a beached whale.
I asked my best friend, John, to help. “You know me better than anyone,” I said. “What do I feel guilty about?”
“You feel guilty about not working,” he said. “You feel guilty if you even take an hour off on Sunday.”
I thought about what he’d said. It didn’t strike me as quite “it.”
True enough that until quite recently I always worked at least two jobs, spent most of my waking hours in a manic sweat and never went to sleep until I’d reached a point of exhaustion.
But why? I remember telling people, “I am hopelessly middle class, and I desire to be upwardly mobile.” But that was just a joke. “Hard work is the closest thing to happiness,” I’d tell others. But that never explained anything.
And then it came to me. It’s not that I feel guilty about not working; it’s that if I stop working I remember.
And what I remember is what I feel most guilty about, and that is simply this:
My heart beats and pumps blood throughout my body and as a result I am alive.
By what right?
That one single fact of my existence is what I’m called to look at; it’s the important work that lies before me, and has for years.
Raleigh, North Carolina
I once heard the remark that when someone commits multiple murders, perhaps he is really the one to be pitied; after all, the victims have shed only bodies. Their souls have gone on to brighter realms and may (even as the murderer sits imprisoned) be preparing for a gallant re-entry into the earth plane. But his torture remains — probably so deeply repressed that it’s unrecognizable to his conscious thought. The guilt hardens in him, smoldering beneath the delicate balance of his sanity.
Most of us have it somewhere in our cells. Unconscious feelings of not good enough, not right, not beautiful, not deserving because something very deep within us is worthy of punishment. Bad, bad, bad. As Joyce, the High Priest of Guilt himself, has intoned: “Apologize, apologize, pluck out his eyes!”
If we’ve all got it — this “gift that keeps on giving,” as a friend of mine once called it — and yet we’ve really not done anything terribly wrong, then self-torture becomes a monumental act of stupidity. What insatiable, nefarious monster am I honoring with my self-abuse? Is guilt a choice? Is it learned response or instinct? Are we really hopelessly tainted, and is self-condemnation simply beating God to the punch? Or are we creating the whole thing to avoid the awesome fear involved in accepting our own divinity?
In freer, unburdened moments, I can imagine that just beyond the fear of guilt lies the undamaged innocence, the inescapable fact of godliness. After all, the word “guilt” is also, in sound, the same as “gilt.” From fallen to gleaming with glory. Just a thought away, if it’s the right thought.
Guilty until proven innocent? Maybe. But when the journey’s done and the final verdict is in, I’m clean. Because I will have learned at last the bottom-line lesson: there’s nobody playing “judge.”
Lower guilt is the guilt conditioned into us in our infancy and childhood by parents, teachers, church, Boy Scouts, etc. The principle of application is to withdraw love from the child at any point where he or she behaves out of line with the current interests of society. By age seven or eight, this application has been internalized; children have learned to withdraw love from themselves, even for the thought of doing “wrong.” This internalized negative socialization we call conscience. Its effect is to keep society stable, to keep people cautious and hyper-alert to the consequences of any impulsive or spontaneous behavior. Lower guilt is what makes for good citizens, like Pharisees. Those who are finally contained by it learn to say to themselves, “Don’t even dare think it!” before they’ve even crystallized the thought they don’t dare think.
Higher guilt is a consequence of lower guilt. It is a reaction to the bondage of our social conditioning, and, in my mind, emanates from a deeper and infinitely more profound consciousness. It is that voice Thoreau calls our genius, which is a delicate and soft-spoken voice, commonly drowned out by the din of society, but unmistakable in those rare moments of personal quietude. It is referred to in the New Testament as the Holy Spirit, breaking through our socially conditioned fears of individuality, warning us not to lose our souls, not to exchange our individual essences for a mess of potash (conformity), but to live the most exciting, abundant, and free lives that we can imagine for ourselves.
When higher guilt can no longer break through the bondage of lower guilt, then we have lost contact with our impulse to the life of joy and abandonment that represents our higher human form. If that contact is lost for long enough, if the higher guilt is ultimately smothered by the lower, we have committed the sin of blasphemy, and the life force moves along without us, and we are left behind to catch another birth.
Petersburg, West Virginia