I woke up one morning and felt guilty. Mainly about the stuff I didn’t accomplish the day before. I’ve felt guilty about having said the wrong thing to a friend. Then I felt guilty about avoiding that friend because of the wrong thing I’d said. Plus, I haven’t called my mother yesterday: guilty. I skipped lunch: guilty. I snacked instead: double guilty. I’m taking up all this space in a world with not enough space in it: guilty, guilty, guilty.
Nor am I feeling good about feeling bad. Guilty about guilty. Filial guilt, fraternal guilt, spousal guilt, maternal guilt, peer guilt, work guilt, middle-class guilt, white guilt, liberal guilt, historical guilt, : I’m guilty of them all.
Thankfully, there are those who say they can save us from guilt. Just check out all the books selling on Amazon. Sure enough, I do feel guilty for those things. So, it is something of a relief to hear that I can be helped – that I can be self-helped. But, for that to happen, what I must first understand is that a) I’m worth it, and b) none of these structures of global inequality, predicated on historical injustices, are my fault.
Perhaps this is a first world problem? Life is not that bad you tell yourself. You’re leading a first class life. This sort of advice, which frames guilt as our most fundamentally inhibiting emotion, takes insights from psychoanalytic and feminist thinking and transforms them into the language of business motivation. The promise is that our guilt can be expiated by making money.
So, the guilt that blocks and inhibits us also propels us to work, work, work, to become relentlessly productive in the hope that we might – by our good works – rid ourselves of guilt. Guilt thus renders us productive and unproductive, workaholic and workphobic – a conflict that might explain the extreme and even violent lengths to which people sometimes will go, whether by scapegoating others or sacrificing themselves, to be rid of what many people consider the most unbearable emotion.
What is the potency of guilt? With its inflationary logic, guilt looks, if anything, to have accumulated over time. Although we tend to blame religion for condemning man to life as a sinner, the guilt that may once have attached to specific vices – vices for which religious communities could prescribe appropriate penance– now seems, in a more secular era, to surface in relation to just about anything: food, sex, money, work, unemployment, leisure, health, fitness, politics, family, friends, colleagues, strangers, entertainment, travel, the environment, you name it.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. The great crusaders of modernity were supposed to uproot our guilt. The subject of countless high-minded critiques, guilt was accused by modern thinkers of sapping the life out of us and causing our psychological deterioration. It was said to make us weak (Nietzsche), neurotic (Freud), inauthentic (Sartre).
But this raises questions about personal responsibility: if it’s true that our particular situation is underpinned by a complex network of social and economic relations, how can any individual really claim to be in control or entirely responsible for her own life? Viewed in such an impersonal light, guilt can seem an unhelpful hangover from less self‑aware times.
The notion that our intellectual frameworks might be as much a reaction to our guilt as a remedy for it might sound familiar to a religious person. In the biblical story, after all, man “falls” when he’s tempted by fruit from the tree of knowledge. It’s “knowledge” that leads him out of the Garden of Eden into an exile that has yet to end. His guilt is a constant, nagging reminder that he has taken this wrong turn.
Perhaps the reason of our guilt is not our lack of knowledge but rather our presumption of it? Our desperate need to be sure of ourselves, even when what we think of ourselves is that we’re worthless, useless, the pits? When we feel guilty we at least have the comfort of being certain of something – of knowing, finally, the right way to feel, which is bad.
This may be why we’re addicted to crime dramas: they satisfy our wish for certainty, no matter how grim that certainty is. At the beginning of a detective story, we’re conscious of a crime, but we don’t know who did it. By the end of the story, it has been discovered which culprit is guilty: case closed. Thus guilt, in its popular rendering, is what converts our ignorance into knowledge.
So, while the stories we prefer may be the ones that uncover guilt, it’s equally possible that our own guilt is a cover story for something else. Something deeper within. But that’s another question to tackle during meditation sessions.
So how did I get up in the morning and get through day? Stop feeling guilty and do something about it. Make everyday your last and try your best to make a difference. Carpe diem.