Ordinary Guilt

Guilt is an interesting emotion. Guilt can have positive and negative ramifications – though most will consider it negative. As a rule, this ordinary lady does not often feel guilty over something that I did (or didn’t do).  Mostly because if I didn’t do it, then there is no need. If I did do something, I probably had a pretty good reason and therefore no need of guilt. Wouldn’t life be great if it always worked that way? Oddly the rare times that I did feel guilty about something were usually times where I had no control at all. Of course, there is even an exception to that as well. So if I am not in charge, did not make the decision to do something a specific way, how come I felt the guilt?

Part of the answer is that I was raised Catholic and being Catholic takes guilt to an art form for many. So maybe I was not that great a Catholic? With the not feeling guilty over the least little thing. Growing up I remember the church teaching/preaching feelings of guilt on a number of topics/taboos including abortion, sex before marriage, masturbation, birth control, divorce, marriage to someone not catholic, not attending regular mass, not agreeing with every word out of the priests mouth, jay walking, talking out loud in class, or any topic of the moment that fits a need of the nun or priest talking. I was a fairly intelligent kid, caught on pretty quickly to the theme. If the religious figure said it was bad and we did it anyway, we should feel loads of guilt. What a crock!

I just could not get on board with feeling guilty about sins I had not yet committed. Or feel guilty about something silly like disagreeing with Sister Mary Catherine about the exact color of a tree. Yep that happens and by the way it really is not healthy to disagree with a nun, they have rulers and know how to use them!  I have never understood why I should feel guilty about something normal such as birth control or sex education classes or disagreeing with someone. Even some of the sins I was accused of couldn’t really get me upset. I mean really, was it my fault in first grade that my long hair moved when I moved my head? Why should I feel guilty over brushing someone’s paper off their desk with my hair? I did not mean to do it. I did not do it on purpose. There was no malice intended. Besides, I sort of think that this falls under one of Newton’s laws right? The law of motion? Sister Mary Catherine thought it was a sin that should send me to my knees.  Sister Mary Catherine had a huge list of sins, most of which are nonsense. I am pretty sure all the nuns tickets1I knew had sin accountability quotas and worked diligently at making sure they made those quotas. Sort of like speeding tickets for the police, nuns hand out a large variety of sin tickets to repent.

On the serious side, guilt can paralyze, cause resentment, and depression.  Each of my miscarriages left me feeling guilty. Truly a painful time that the head and heart cannot seem to adjust to the fact that there was nothing I did or could have done to change the outcome. The failure of my body to carry the baby to term without complications was devastating. In my own head I was guilty of the greatest sin ever, killing my unborn child. Yes, that is absolutely how I saw each miscarriage. Statically, one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage. The reasons are many and varied but not often as a direct result of anything the mom did or did not do. The absolution from this guilt was years and years in the making. Still, at times the old guilt haunts me, but my brain is a bit stronger now and can hold off the heart’s insistence that I should be guilty of something.  On the other hand guilt can motivate positive change – though according to Psychology Today, guilt is not the best motivator.

The most memorable time that I truly and sincerely felt guilty and was motivated to change something I had done was when my youngest was six years old just starting out in first grade. Some brain trust faculty member thought it would be a good idea to have a speaker talk to the kids about the dangers of smoking cigarettes. I did not get to see this lecture first hand. I am pretty sure that I would have objected to some of the content if I had. Or at least objected to the fact that the content completely traumatized my youngest son. No one can lay on the guilt trip better than a traumatized child.

When you add in a precocious child that likes to read and knows how to research a topic both online and in a library. A child with a very sharp mind who can ask very pertinent questions you have the makings of a great guilt trip.  This lovely child came home and the trip on the guilt train began. Cue the crocodile tears, wobbly lip and very dramatic dialog. Seriously, I felt like I was on a Hollywood sound stage as part of an unfolding after-school special. The dialog went something along these lines:

Me: hello, how was your day?

Son: (tears, lip wobble, slight sob in voice) you are going to die.

Me: What?

Son: You are going to die! and I will be an orphan with no mommy to see me grow up, and go to college, and get married. I will be all alone! (heavy sobbing here)

Me: WHAT? Who told you I was going to die?

Son: (more sobbing) the lady told us at school, that if you smoke cigarettes you will die, and you smoke so you will die! (barely coherent)cryingchild

Me: I am not going to die

Son: YES YOU ARE, the LADY SAID SO! (hysterical crying)

So, this conversation went on, and on for quite some time (hours, days, weeks even). The whole time my lovely youngest child would sniffle and sob about all the things he was going to have to do without a mom. You know, since he was destined to be an orphan and all. No idea where my husband was in this orphan thought process, but I guess since he did not smoke he did not count. Every day my offspring had some new bit of data or information to toss at me. (Trust me, there is not a nun out there that could have done a better job of guilting me!) So the end result of all this guilt being heaped on my shoulders, I have not had a cigarette in about 16 years. That is right, I let a child of six guilt me into quitting smoking. I suppose there are worse things in life. But seriously, I had to get off that train, the load of guilt was guilt-tripkilling me. Not to mention the child who was up for best actor in the Oscars for that year!

So the moral of this little blog entry about guilt – little kids are as good as or better than nuns at tossing guilt. Seriously, guilt can be a heavy load for an ordinary lady (or man) to carry around. If the load you are carrying is getting to be too much for you, reach out for help. A parent, friend, sibling, pastor, priest, nun (yes even a nun), or a medical professional can provide help. Sometimes simply talking an issue out with someone you trust can make all the difference.  A little guilt is good for the soul, but too much can really damage us.

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