Thoughts on Guilt

Generally speaking, I am someone who experiences a great deal of guilt.  Now, mostly I don’t mind. I think that a whole lot of the time guilt is there to make you feel bad about crappy things you’ve done so that you don’t do them again.  It’s nature’s little correction system, and I have high standards for myself that I fail to live up to now and again (often) and so it makes sense that I would feel guilty when I blow it.  That lousy feeling is worth avoiding. Guilt, I believe, it mostly there to tell you when you’re doing something bad or being a jerk.  It’s like a warning system that rings an alarm when I’m coming off the path. 

I know that’s not always true about guilt. When the kids were little and summer vacation would end, I would just about weep with joy.  I would be a good, loving and committed mother all summer long. We’d go to the park and do crafts and have no TV and it would be beautiful for the kids, and I wouldn’t resent it all (much) and then the first day of school would come and I’d drop the three of them off and then be the mum in the schoolyard wishing them a happy day and pretending like I was going to miss them… then trying to get all the other parents to high five me and hug the minute that the door to the school closed with them on the other side of it.

Always, while I was trying to kiss some random woman on the mouth in a pure human expression of happiness, there would be some mother – you know the one, she exists in every schoolyard in the world, the mum who says "Oh no. I hate the first day of school.  I miss my children so much when they aren’t with me" and it would hit me like a train. A train with a snowplow on the front of it. Guilt. A big crushing tsunami of guilt that I didn’t love my children enough to want to be with them all the time.  It would always take a few minutes for me to remember the truth. You’re not a crap mum if you think it’s really okay to enjoy a cup of coffee without someone throwing a lego in it. Without someone yelling "SHE’S LOOKING OUT MY WINDOW." I wasn’t a bad mother because I wanted to pee by myself just once or twice a year.  I’d put down the guilt and walk away. I could define good mothering for myself, and I had.  That mum’s feelings were hers, not mine. Guilt is a feeling you’re supposed to experience when you cross your moral line, not the moral line of the lady down the street. 

I try hard not to confuse the first and second types. Is it my moral line, or someone else’s? Is my guilt appropriate? (I let myself down) or inappropriate? (I let that lady down.)  Mostly now that I’m middle aged I have the difference straight, though I have to check in regularly.  Now the only sort of guilt I can’t cope with is the third type. The kind I feel when I get something nice, or luxurious.  You know what I mean? Like when I’m in the grocery store buying organic milk and that bread made with nine kinds of sprouted seeds while wearing my cashmere scarf and new coat,  and the guy in line in front of me is scraping up pennies for pasta, an apple and some carrots for the kid with him, A kid who could really use a scarf at all, never mind cashmere.  You know that kind of guilt?  Sometimes when I talk about this kind of guilt, the conversations I have are confusing to me. They have been since I was little, and here I am, a big, grown up lady and I still can’t cope. 

When I articulate these feelings, this sense of feeling bad and guilty for having nice things, invariably someone tells me that I shouldn’t feel bad,  that I deserve these things, and that I work hard to afford them,  and that I have earned the luxury.  They’re probably right. It’s not like Joe and I are rich. We budget really carefully each month,  making decisions about where our money goes, and why.  If we want something nice, like to go out to dinner, we have to look at the money and make some decisions.  We work hard – we probably do deserve the things that we have been able to buy.  The thing is, and this is where it gets hard for me, who is to say that the guy in the supermarket who was scraping up the pennies –  Who’s to say that he doesn’t deserve the sprouted grains bread too? 

The odds are pretty good that the guy works harder than I do.  Years ago I worked at a community centre for a segment of the population that tends to be low-income, and at risk.  I was way broke back then, and while I had a grocery budget that was ridiculously low (see aforementioned pasta, apple and carrots) we were never hungry.  A lot of these people were. A lot of them would feed their kids and not themselves, because they had to make choices, and here’s the killer. Most of them had two jobs.  A full time crappy job and a part time crappy job, just to make ends barely meet. They were working way, way more hours than I was, at jobs that I think are much harder than what I was doing.  There was a voice in the back of my head back then, and it’s still there now. That voice wonders, if you deserve the money you get, if I earned the right to have nice things, then how come these people aren’t?  Do secretaries work that much harder than the guy scrubbing the toilets at the local? Does a big time baseball player work that much harder than the secretary?  I know it’s complicated, I know that people are going to say all kinds of stuff like maybe that poor person should have gotten an education, or maybe Warren Buffett really is so smart that he deserves billions of dollars, or… I don’t know. A thousand things that make it harder to quantify what people are worth – and all that stuff is true too.

The problem is that when push comes to shove, we’re all told that if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do then you will get what you deserve, and I think living in a society that believes that? I think that’s gotta feel like total crap if you’re a 57 year old taxi driver working 60 hours a week in Toronto, trying your best to pay the bills. Especially if you’re an immigrant from a war torn country where you were a surgeon. I’m sure, if you’re that immigrant, you understand what happened, and what choices you made, and all that – but I bet it makes that taxi driver want to take people who imply that you straight up get what you deserve depending on how hard you work for a long, long ride with the fare running the whole time. 

I don’t know what the answer to this sort of guilt is. I do my best to spread my good fortune around, I offer time and money to organizations that are working for a society I  would like to live in – I vote for politicians who are mostly going to do work that reflects my belief that you don’t always get what you deserve, and that sometimes circumstances or bad luck conspire against people, and that we all need a society that reflects that.  It doesn’t help much.  Mostly I still feel guilty when I have something nice. I’ve heard the argument that I’m not comfortable with nice things because my self esteem is low.  I’m willing to buy that on some level – but really, it isn’t that I don’t think I deserve a rest, or a vacation, or cashmere.  It’s that I really think that most people do- and I feel bad having something that they’re not, when they’re just as hardworking and worthy as I am.  More worthy a lot of the time.  I don’t even have to put on pants to go to work most days. 

Anyway, I apologize for the ramble.  This whole  thing was brought on by my realization that I hadn’t told you guys that I’m going on vacation next week – and then realized that I hadn’t told you because I feel guilty that I’m getting something nice.  Something nice I totally worked for, saved up for and earned – and still have really, really complex feelings about.

Guilt. Got any?