Just what is guilt? Not guilt for a crime worthy of punishment, but that debilitating sense of being wrong for no reason. Freud had lots to say about guilt, discovering it was one of the most difficult patterns of self-recrimination to recover from. Guilt impressed on a young mind creates the capacity to respond to moral judgment with negative self-thought no different than taking a whip and wailing on your own skin. The tendency to suffer over what one should do and does not or what one did do and feels they should not have is certainly retained from our earliest years. Simply tapping two dishes together should not produce guilt. “Are you going to break every dish in the house?” feels remarkably different than, “Thanks for doing the dishes.”
Making other people feel guilty should be a crime. “God will get you for that”, for example. “Don’t mind me, I’m fine here all alone.” “Don’t I have a mouth?” Guilt producing sentiments have sharp pointy teeth and Canadians are particularly adept at these language patterns. We moved to the U.S. when we were young where we also learned the art of declaratives that get directly to the point. “Piss off.” “Drop dead.” And of course, “Fuck you.” Often these come to mind in the face of guilt producing statements.
I did not realize I’d picked up my parent’s habit of guilt speak until a perceptive twelve year old pointed out, “No matter what you say you’re always trying to make people feel bad.” I was twenty five then and have worked consistently to rid my dialog of guilt producing assertions ever since that valuable observation was made. Thirty years later I find myself taking care of my declining Mom who cannot remember much, but is unfailingly fluent in the language of guilt.
She was beating on the bathroom door one day, sadly because she is afraid to be alone. “Hello, are you in there?” “Yes Mom, I’m using the toilet, can you please wait.” I said it without emotion because she had no clue what door I was behind, only that there was a door in the way. “You’re sure taking your time? Are you going to leave me out here all day?” she fumed. “I’ll be out in a minute,” I said with less patience. I mean what the hell. More pounding on the door followed. “Mom, I’m not opening the door, you have to stop that.” A blissful moment of silence preceded, “WELL YOU JUST KEEP GOING THEN!”
I’d love to have a knee slapping yuck with Freud about how right he was. Why do we talk to each other this way? I gave up the notion of God rewarding and punishing people for their behavior way back in Sunday school without turning into a sociopath. Unfortunately Mom bested the fear of God with a lifetime of well-placed missives and I don’t think it made me a better person. It gave therapists a client.
My sister and I made calls to relatives after our father died. In response to the news I was told, “I never thought to hear from you again. We’ve had our share of deaths too. I suppose you’ve been painting so much you couldn’t answer my last email.” I wish I’d had the nerve to say I simply forgot. I bit my tongue before retaliating in kind since it is not a habit I’ve completely broken even after all this time. Guilt duels are wholly unappealing. I’ve tried a few with Mom just to see where they would go, but I never win. There is no winning when everyone walks away feeling less love instead of more.