What is guilt? And what purpose does it truly serve? Can’t we just let go of guilt and feel free to be flawed?
Lately, I’ve been lying a lot. “Do you have children?” a stranger will ask me. “Yes,” I reply, and when I tell them my son is nearly 3, I nod and sigh and say oh yes when they say things like, “Well, enjoy it now, because it doesn’t last long!” or “That’s such a great age!” I don’t tell them that my son is terminally ill, or that he can’t move or speak or see, or that when he has tiny stretch-spasms, it almost shocks me to see his hand in the air if I haven’t moved it or positioned it there. Instead I grin and act like this normative parenting reality, the one everyone assumes, is in fact my reality. This is the biggest lie of all, at times both comforting and terrifying. I want to act as if I’m one of those mothers who swans into yoga and says, “Oh, it’s just so nice to be kid-free for the day!” I act like I’m not sad. I act happy, and sometimes I am. And for that, I feel guilty.
What makes us feel guilty, and what is the source of this all-too-familiar feeling? “I feel guilty,” we say when we feel like we’ve done something “bad,” or not done “enough,” or hurt another’s feelings, or maybe had one too many glasses of wine or an extra slice of cheesecake: guilt. Where do we learn guilt? My Jewish friends say it’s a Jewish mother thing; I say it’s a Protestant, slightly Catholic mother thing. Others say we’re built that way. St. Augustine, who was the naughtiest, raunchiest, sex-hungry saint who ever lived (during his pre-saint years), would say it’s our human nature. We’re wired to feel guilty, he’d tell us (as would many others) because we’re sinful. Enter Adam, Eve, the apple, original sin, etc. We are in need of salvation.
Are we? What would that look like? What kind of life could you possibly live without feeling guilt if we take “the right life” to mean a course of action governed by principles rooted in a system of morality that many of us don’t fully believe in and yet never question? What is wrong, what is right? How can we even find the freedom to ask this question when we’re so busy being guilty?
Guilt is everywhere. Fitness magazines encourage you to sidestep guilt by refusing an order of French fries, as if it’s that easy, and if making smart food choices has some kind of moral import, somehow making you a better or worse person (if only). There’s the omnipresent parental guilt that you’re not doing enough for your child, not earning enough money, not being something or another enough. There’s the guilt of spending too much money, various guilts around being too rich or too poor, depending on your status. There’s the guilt of thinking private, maybe dirty or inappropriate or angry or bitter thoughts, and guilt about all other manner of activities that many of us do habitually and often automatically. Why can’t we just be human, and flawed, instead of human and sinful and in need of some radical shift that will change who we are, how we think and act?
I might be through with guilt. Where does it come from, what does it mean? At its base it stems, of course, from Judeo-Christian notions of morality. Guilt prompted action. That’s why you can still wander into an old country church in the Jura mountains outside Geneva and find a little slot through which to slip your indulgences, your regrets, and of course these missteps extracted a financial obligation to the church to keep it going. That’s a pretty convenient system. Tell a story to convince people that there’s a right and wrong way to do things, and then make sure there are financial (and psychological) consequences if they stray from that set path.
In his landmark, super grumpy and insightful book The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche set out to prove that our morals are based on made-up stories, which makes them about as solid as lint. I’m beginning to agree. I don’t think the removal of guilt from our lives will result in social mayhem; I think apologizing for an action that you regret, or that was hurtful, should be freeing for both involved. Please accept my apology but not my guilt. Of course, this is an ideal situation. But isn’t that, in the end, what we’re trying to do? Living a right life, an imperfect life, a life that leaves room for our mistakes and the missteps of others.
A former teacher of mine, Naomi Shihab Nye, once said to me when I was complaining about everything I had to do and the way it was interfering with my oh-so-epic pursuit of being “an artist,” that one of the most powerful words you can say to someone, or to yourself, is “no.” I’ll do this, but not this, and I’ll stand by my decision. She told me that was a powerful stance from which to make art. Yes.
I say no to guilt. I might just keep on lying about what’s happening in my life—the deep undercurrents of change and the emotional turmoil—because when my son dies it will be hard enough. I will have to tell the truth then; there will be no way out. Instead, for now, I will bask in the feelings of a pleasant fiction where my son is healthy and lives to grow, to explore, to run into my room and ask for a glass of water in the middle of the night.
Without guilt, I’m going to enjoy this feeling of living in an alternative universe, if only for a moment.
Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (forthcoming from Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.