I have guilt about everything. I have guilt when I’ve knowingly done something wrong like walk away with change for a $20, after paying with a $10. I have guilt even when good things happen to me, as in leaving a job in which I was under-appreciated, undervalued, under-utilized and under-stimulated for new career frontiers, yet still I felt bad and almost cried in the exit interview. (But not that bad – I instant messaged the manager to give unofficial notice immediately after I verbally accepted my current job. I was that excited!)
I feel guilt that I make more money than some people and that I have a few comforts. If you don’t believe me, read my post on handing out money. I feel guilty that my kids are good students, when my niece has trouble. I felt guilty twice for being a bad pet owner when both of my cats needed emergency surgery, though they are the most loved pets I know. I was guilty of not understanding their symptoms. I am guilty of not calling my friends as often as they call me and of spending frivolously, with an eye to toward entertainment.
Most recently, guilt assaulted me for letting a co-worker ‘hang himself’. Though I had done nothing wrong, I also didn’t help.
I attribute my insatiable collection of guilt to growing up in the Black in America’s Bible Belt, where once I was slapped for keeping ten cents extra change from the store. The pinings of self-guilt took hold when I stole a .10 cent piece of gum from a store that, soon after, closed it doors permanently and I couldn’t confess. I felt so bad that I tried to pay back God by dropping every penny I got for years. I was literally damned to hell. And I was only seven.
Later in teenage and college years, when I stole cigarettes (amongst other things like shoes and money), I at least deserved the guilt I felt afterward.
So, I have Midwestern guilt, African Methodist Episcopalian (Bible Belt) guilt, southern guilt, and Black guilt. It’s a wardrobe of guilts…if one doesn’t cover it, another one will envelop you.
Religious guilt, mine a derived Black version of Catholicism, probably accounts for most of it. Obey the rules. Fear the wrath. If not the wrath of God, then beware the parents. Child-rearing experts write that spanking children kills spirit and instills guilt, deserved or not. Southern guilt comes from never being genteel enough, courteous or gracious enough. Midwestern guilt comes from a coal-mining, backwoods, depression-era sense of honor and pride, working ’til our fingers knarl and our asbestos-laden lungs are ruint, out of duty. Black guilt is borne of the need to rise above the wretched treatment of my people in America, always trying to deserve the fruits of those who came before us, and sacrificed for us.
Some guilt is good. The threat of guilt (and punishment) can act as a deterrent, like “I probably shouldn’t murder that person” or “I probably shouldn’t key this nice car”. Some criminals have turned themselves in because they cannot handle the guilt.
Guilt is powerful. So powerful that it can eat you alive. So powerful that it can inhibit you from trying. Success would mean leaving something else behind. It would mean doing something better than someone else, and if nothing else, some of us are taught that the more we suffer, the greater our reward will be…later. Guilt is so powerful that it will convince you that you are not worthy. The guilt of doing and the guilt of not doing enough.
How do you plead?