Friday, January 02, 2009

The Myth of Guilt-free

The year boundary is always a time for making plans and promises for the coming year, many of which never come to fruition. But it inevitably is also the time for considering the many ways we screwed up during the past year, thereby invoking guilt and remorse, unfortunately adding to a lifetime of failures that simply compounds with each passing year.

My great propensity for guilt and remorse made me highly qualified to be a Jew. My guilt goes all the way back to when I was a child and I did things like spill an entire glass of milk in a drawer full of family photos. It includes a bullying incident in the 7th grade when I made another girl cry. It includes lying to my parents about my whereabouts. It includes my inability as a parent to understand certain issues facing my children. It includes my failure to adequately care for my parents in their last months and days. This past year I have guilt about things I still don’t even understand. I am so sorry about all these things, even now. And you notice I didn’t even touch on unfulfilled new year’s resolutions.

So how does all this guilt and remorse fit in with the old adages like “You can’t cry over spilt milk,” “It's just water over the dam,” and “Que sera, sera”? If we really lived by such a philosophy, we would simply put these unfortunate things behind us and look to the future with dry eyes.

For most of us, it’s not quite that simple. From an early age, we know the difference between right and wrong. We sense when someone’s feelings have been hurt. Our minds even set up endless loops to replay incidents where we have failed in some way.

If only there were a magical pill to rid us of the considerable baggage of guilt and remorse that seem to be part and parcel of our daily lives. Wouldn’t it be nice if on January 1, we could simply jettison all those negative feelings and start with a truly clean slate?

Unfortunately GUILT-FREE seems to exist only in the world of food, and most of that is false advertising!


Blogger Aileen said...

We may not be able to completely rid ourselves of guilt, but we can practice self-forgiveness.

It seems kinda pointless for us to feel guilty about how guilty we feel!

We are human after all, and that is messy and beautiful wrapped into one.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Merle Sneed said...

Unless we are sociopaths, we all suffer together on this one.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Aileen -- Yes, self-forgiveness is the life-line that saves us sometimes from drowning in a sea of guilt!

Actually if we truly live in the present moment as the Buddhists suggest we should, we don't think about past transgressions and we don't make future promises. That's the beauty of mindfully concentrating on the here and now!

Merle -- But if we adopt your approach, we no longer have to worry about a thing, unless we can't find something positive during the past year.

I suppose as long as the positives outweigh the negatives, we can feel OK about ourselves!

11:16 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Apparently there are individuals who are guilt-free and who never learn:

Today's WaPo had a story about a guy released from prison who walked into the parking lot and stole a car (after kicking the driver out of it) because he needed a way to get home. Which says recidivism is alive and well. He is guilt-free after being apprehended and returned to jail.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Angela said...

Why do you think you ought to be perfect, Barbara? Who told you that? You are certainly trying hard, and even you have not quite managed. And now you are relentless with yourself and think you ought to be punished? For what? For not having tried hard enough, or for having failed sometimes? Don`t you see how much you ask of yourself there?
If you can`t, my dear, I can: I FORGIVE YOU!!!! And you should try to do it, too. Right now.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Angela -- Long ago I accepted that I will never be perfect. No human is. I was simply expressing the fact that most of us do have regrets for things we've done that stick with us for a long time. I'm sure you have some of those too. I think Merle summed it up so well.

1:20 PM  
Blogger bulletholes said...

Step 8: We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step 9; We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

They say the reason we do this is not for the other person nearly so much as for ourselves.
The act of unforgiveness forever locks a heart to the past, even if its forgiving ourselves.

1:23 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Bulletholes -- What a great path to be on. I love this: The act of unforgiveness forever locks a heart to the past. What a shame it would be to have a heart locked to the past.

1:27 PM  
Blogger bulletholes said...

Yeah, thats a good one and I should credit Garrison Keillor for it.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I think guilt is like any other feeling: We acknowledge it and experience it from time to time, but we shouldn't cling to it and let it commandeer our lives. You know?

3:20 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Steve -- Well said. It's part of the human emotional spectrum. But it's all about keeping a sense of balance. Interesting that balance seems to be coming into play in so many aspects of my life right now.

Happy New Year, since I can't say it on your Blog! Aren't you ready to come out of Blogger hibernation?

3:52 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

A fellow blogger asked this question in a post about another matter but it seems apropos: "Are you better now than you were then?"

When applied to guilt, it echoes Maya Angelou's declaration, "When you know better, you do better."

Guilt is handy for checking to see if you're doing your best but it makes a ruthless taskmaster.

6:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To paraphrase one of the U.S.-born "convert" Buddhists: If you want to know whether your spiritual practice is "working" or making you a better person, ask your family (or friends).

I try to work with regret as a learning opportunity, and find it much more helpful than guilt! Happy New Year, Barbara!

-- F.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Cyndy said...

If you are looking for balance, then I think regret is much closer than guilt is to the center of the seesaw. Also, all of that spilled milk should have rolled down off the seesaw by now, I would think, so the guilty end should not be as heavy!

I have also been "guilty" of feeling more guilt than is actually appropriate. I have a friend who on numerous occasions has asked me "Are you sure you're not Jewish?" It's good to learn how to let go, especially when there really is no turning back. I've learned that lesson more than a few times.

New Year's is the best time to look forward, or to enjoy where you are.
Happy New Year!

9:32 PM  
Blogger e said...

I'm with F, Bulletholes and Steve here. When you've done something, trying to understand your blunder and its consequences is important, then ask forgiveness, forgive yourself and do better.

Happy New Year Bulletholes, Steve and B. I'm sorry that I can't wish Steve a brighter 2009 on his blog, but I did send an e-mail. B-which big event were you refering to in your previous post? I have one shortly and possibly another this summer.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Squirrel said...

I agree with Steve, so many feelings.

10:39 PM  
Blogger Squirrel said...

Remember, Billy Joel loves you just the way you are.

10:39 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

So many lovely words of wisdom from people I trust!

I've stored any feelings of guilt and remorse away at least for a while as I look ahead to 2009, where CORE and BALANCE are still right up there as things I want to concentrate on.

In the present moment, life is really very good and precious. And that's all that matters right now.

11:50 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

Barbara - here's a little trick for all the guilt you'll be accruing in 2009. When you feel a load of guilt pressing you down, set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes. Sit down with your premeditated guilt and really dive into it. Bring up every little thing you've been feeling awful about, past and present. When the timer rings, make yourself think more promising thoughts (you'll pay more attention, you'll practice kindness etc.). Every time a feeling of guilt approaches about something you included in that 15 minutes, remind yourself you've ALREADY felt guilty about that and move on. Repeat as necessary.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- I'll remember this if I feel a "guilt attack" coming on. Contrary to what this post might indicate, I don't really sit around wallowing in guilt for the most part. It's those year fringes that seem to open the floodgates, but now we're moving on into 2009, a year in which I hope there will be many more happy, positive things than things to throw on the guilt pile!

8:37 AM  

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