Wow. Ruth Whippman sure served up a wonderful addition to The NY Times’ Anxiety series with this past weekend’s “Guilt Trip.” It’s good enough to make one feel guilty for not having written it oneself… Har har har. But she expresses the daily reality of guilt and (little ‘l’) law in such undeniable and funny terms that if you can’t relate, we probably lost you a long time ago. Whippman indicates that there is such a thing as an endless “feedback loop” of guilt over which willpower and self-knowledge have almost no sway, and that guilt is often a hereditary condition, self-perpetuating to the max and something in which we often get stuck. Suffice it to say, guilt, in both its silly and not-so-silly varieties, occupies more of our headspace and energy than most of us would care to admit, and lies behind an inordinate amount of our frantic to-ing and fro-ing, paralysis and grief. That Christianity would be so concerned with addressing it in some way that does not compound it (i.e. substitution and salvation), should not come as a surprise but a relief. Of course, it’s tragic–almost comedic–how much that message has been inverted in the popular consciousness (religion as a vehicle of guilt and shame etc). On a more concrete level though, the piece serves as a nice reminder of something we like to say on here fairly regularly, usually in relation to pulpits, that guilt and fear can motivate people to change for a little while, but they wear off remarkably quickly. It’s comforting (the opposite of guilt-inducing) to know we’re not the only ones who experience things this way:
[Guilt] is so powerful, we do almost anything to avoid it. Guilt is the driver of our internal system of checks and balances, the stubborn little inner voice that stops us from eating 19 Twinkies in a row or telling our neighbor’s husband that his story about the company team-building session wasn’t funny the first time. Its specter is what drives the midnight diaper change (those who say that the urge to run to a child squirming in its own feces at 3 a.m. is brought about by adoration have probably never had children). We need guilt, that dreary engine of morality, in order for society to function. Without its looming prospect, we would turn into sociopaths. Or politicians. Guilt is our inner police force, but if we give it too much emotional power, we risk turning into a police state…
Like many women, I have the capacity to feel guilty about almost anything. There’s the basic glossy-magazine guilt package — the fiendishly complicated skin-care regimens and man-pleasing instructions, the bikini bodies and never to-be-cooked recipes that give rise to them. These provide the background hum of failure.
The specifics cut deeper. I feel guilty that I almost certainly hurt my mother-in-law’s feelings when I said that thing on the phone to her the other day. I feel guilty that it has taken me three weeks to respond to my best friend’s supportive and lovely e-mail. I feel guilty that I throw my recycling in the regular trash when no one is looking and that one of my son’s earliest two-word speech combinations was “Mommy’s wine.” Most of all, I feel a crippling self-loathing that I am wasting time worrying about any of this self-indulgent nonsense when right now there are children starving in Africa.
Such is the awe-inspiring flexibility of the guilt muscle; it can be activated by any given action and also it’s exact opposite. Hence I can spend a week at home with my son, feeling guilty that I am neglecting work and haven’t written a single word, that I am letting down my editors and myself and failing to make use of the education my parents worked so hard to provide. Yet now as I type, the guilt bubbles up for the fact that my son is languishing in day care, while I am busy not appreciating the minute-by-minute wonderama that is his precious early childhood.
When you live abroad, no matter how often you call home, you will fall victim to the preordained certainty that you will Not Call Home Often Enough. But the guilt that comes from not calling your mother is the bunny-slopes stuff. For the more experienced player in the guilt game, there is actually calling your mother.
Mother: “Ruth, Hi! What a surprise.” (Surprise is the trigger word. It means I don’t call enough.) “How are you?” (The emphasis on the “are” suggests that the correct answer is at least an hour’s worth of heartwarming anecdotes. The correct answer is not a sullen “fine.”)
Me: (sullen, slightly petulant): “Fine.” (immediate self-reproach)
My son lets out a long piercing, mother-shaming wail from the next room. The cause: he wants to watch “Barney’s Preschool Hootenanny” on Netflix.
Mother: “Oh, dear.” (pause) “Is he ill?”
I hang up the phone having both failed to deliver the heart-to-heart my mother craves, and having proved myself a Bad Parent in her eyes. The guilt ricochets like a billiard ball in my chest all day. This is the self-feeding monster technically known as “compound guilt” and given time, it can flourish with almost no prompting.
My mother usually hasn’t said a single word that could reasonably make me feel this way. She doesn’t need to. Grandparents in general are highly skilled at the ancient art of guilt transmission, and she need not even raise an unseen eyebrow on the other end of the line to communicate fully the wrongness of my life choices. Microscopic disapproval signs, not visible to the naked eye are transmitted directly to the guilt gland in an elaborate feedback loop, leading to instant incapacitating self-reproach.
My mother would probably hate the idea that talking to her makes me feel this way. It would almost certainly make her feel crippling guilt in turn. For guilt is an heirloom emotion, a moth-ridden quilt that no one can quite bring themselves to throw out. It bonds us together, a glue more powerful than the family dinner table. My mother makes me feel guilty because her mother made her feel guilty. We will probably continue to transmit our guilt down the generations until our great-great-great-grandchildren jump in their spaceships and flee the planet. When they do, they’ll almost certainly be made to feel guilty about it.
Not that it will work. Guilt is usually pretty ineffective over all. Despite its lofty claims to stand in the way of wrongdoing, guilt is really just closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. It also allows us the luxury of hedging our moral bets. Instead of making a choice and standing by the consequences, we behave as we please and then cash in our moral credits by feeling bad about it afterward.
I’d love to pass that level of emotional sanity onto my children. In theory, that is. As long as they call their mother once in awhile.