I woke up today feeling something I haven’t felt in a very long time: Guilt. A nasty, nearly useless little five letter word.
Maybe at one time in our less evolved society, guilt had a function of somehow strengthening social order to create better civilization, of keeping aberration to a minimum so that the fragile agreement of cooperative effort could succeed. Maybe it still does, maybe it’s something we still need. But I know, quite certainly, that we don’t need it at the level most of us experience it.
My feeling today was minor: I woke up feeling guilty that I am having a beautifully fantastic experience of life right now, without participating in all the “shoulds” of responsible living. I’m living off of my modest savings, and while I’m now working some part time, it’s still not enough to cover my even my reduced expenses. The thought that wormed through my mind was something like, “I don’t deserve to have all this fun; I should be working towards making sure I’m fiscally stable. I’m being irresponsible.” It was in such a quiet, unassuming voice, passing through my brain, that I almost didn’t perceive I was hearing it.
The inner monologue in my head today is a quiet one. Either I tune it out most of the time, or it just doesn’t often speak anymore. But every once in a while, I hear it, and it’s never saying nice things. It’s never saying useful things. When I was younger, that monologue was a lot louder, and talked a lot more often, and it rarely had much to say besides, “Guilt. Worry. Should.” Oh, and a whole lot of judgmental criticism of other people, too.
I have a friend who says, “If it’s not useful or beautiful…”, the implication being if it’s not at least one or the other, then it doesn’t deserve space in his life. It’s a phrase I really appreciate, and I like to apply it to words, too. Guilt is rarely useful after childhood. (I’m not certain it’s truly useful there, either, but it can be an effective mechanism.) And I don’t see any beauty in it. So it’s a word, and a feeling, that I don’t want to give a place to in my life.
Don’t get me wrong; I can be self-centered and thoughtless and insensitive, and I cause pain to others who close to me, just like anyone else – I just don’t feel guilt in response to it. I feel regret for my poor actions or words, I feel sorrow for the pain I caused, I feel disappointment for my lack of awareness or attention. These words, these emotions lead me to reflection, to examination, of how to meaningfully apologize, how to mend and heal, how to forgive, how to recognize a pattern if there is one, how to change so that maybe I navigate more gracefully next time.
Guilt just leads to the “I’m a horrible person” monologue. Who needs that???
So the presence of the word guilt in my inner monologue this morning surprised me. I started to follow my habitual guilt pattern – I should fix this, I should do something about it, I’m not doing enough of what I should… but for all these shoulds, there isn’t really much I can change right now. Even if I could, I’m 3/4 certain I wouldn’t want to. And the only reason I feel like I should change something is because I am subconsciously feeling guilty about failing the cultural norm of a “good life”, that I was brought up in: Go to school and do well, so you can get a good job, so you can a good income, so you can buy a house and take a vacation now and again (and have children, but we already know that part didn’t stick).
When I realized that I don’t want to change what I am doing right now, I began to wonder where the feeling of guilt came from. I’m doing what I want. I’m working towards something I feel strongly about, for maybe the second time in my life. I’m still, right now, capable of paying my bills. Why guilt? This inquiry led me me to word #2, which will be my next post: worry.