A Storytelling Serial
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Lately I’ve noticed the theme of guilt popping up in articles, blogs, correspondence, and discussion groups.
It’s nice to know I’m not alone.
I’ve always been a functioning guiltaholic, but my sense of guilt has been—quite unexpectedly— increasing.
I thought by now I would be able to say, “I tried to be a conscientious parent, wife, friend, daughter, employee, planetary citizen.
“I did well in school, mostly got along with others, worked hard, took care of dependent creatures, met deadlines, obeyed laws, never littered and usually recycled, strove to avoid wasting food and water, cleaned my house regularly, always balanced my bank accounts, flossed my teeth, read good books, ate right, and exercised.
“And that’s enough.”
Apparently, it isn’t. The Guilt Voice is getting louder, and it’s shouting, “Nope, not nearly enough. The bar is a lot higher, and you’re a slacker.”
I’ve been thinking about that message, and here’s my response.
Guilt and Age
When you’re further away from the end of life, it’s easier to push down guilt by rationalizing that you still have plenty of time to improve.
Now I’m too old to deny reality. I’m running out of time to accomplish all I feel I should. The universal laws of limitations are catching up with me. The pressure is immense.
And while the view forward narrows, the rearview mirror becomes a panorama. I have more past than future, so looking back consumes a great deal of energy. In many cases, it’s too late to do any better than I’ve already done. People are gone, jobs are finished, children are grown, chances are lost.
Regrets? Of course. And unfortunately, they compound guilt.
Guilt and the World
A bona fide Baby Boomer, I was born during the idyllic time of perfect families. Mine was a bit of a mess, but I assumed we were an exception to the ubiquitous media images. My childhood was largely protected from truth.
When I came home for lunch one November day during second grade, my mother handed me a bowl of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and quietly told me the president of the United States was dead. When I asked how and why, she said she didn’t want to discuss it. When I returned to the classroom that afternoon, my teacher announced we would not be talking about the former president.
And that was it. Back to childhood.
I’ve since learned that all sorts of terrible things happened during the fifties, sixties, and early seventies, both inside and outside homes. In fact, I’ve spent much of my adulthood trying to catch up on the hard facts of those years.
Although now I understand the real world was in turmoil outside my bubble, ignorance made life easier for my young self. I couldn’t feel bad about what I didn’t know existed, so I focused on the small universe I lived in. As a child and a teen, I found all the guilt I could handle in my limited surroundings.
Decades later, I still don’t take on guilt for what I don’t know, but I try to pay close attention. And I see enough to be profoundly disquieted much of the time.
Is the world getting worse? Am I finally more aware? Or do we live in an age of information and openness that reveals what we once kept hidden?
In a multiple-choice test I’d pick “all the above.”
Many point to inaccurate memories and skewed perspectives as evidence that hand-wringing is no more necessary now than it ever was, and in fact we live in the best of times.
The scientific community would not agree. And I feel the burden of planetary demise in a way I never previously imagined.
I’m also tortured by continuing public acts of violence born of hate. I live a mile from Columbine. That wasn’t supposed to happen again. It was a devastating event in my community, and I was deeply affected. Yet the hate and the violence have continued, in many ways and in many places. I’ve done nothing to stop it.
I struggle with my complicity in destroying the earth and in ignoring other wrongs I can’t wish away.
Thus my guilt grows.
Guilt and Responsibility
Although I’m clearly not Superwoman and don’t claim to be responsible for everything to everyone, all the time, I still view responsibility as the core cause of my guilt.
Those who know me see my overly developed sense of responsibility as one of my greatest flaws. The paradox, though, is that my sense of responsibility is strongest in ongoing interactions with people I know!
More than any other requirement, including that of self-care, I feel responsible for personal commitments, ranging from parental duties to job demands to expectations of friendship. I chose to become a mother, an employee, a person in relationship. In adopting those roles, I made implicit and explicit promises to select people. And I’m internally compelled to be trustworthy.
Have I ever failed my obligations? Have I left or neglected relationships? Occasionally, and nearly always for reasons I thought justifiable at the time. Hindsight sometimes showed, however, that the long-term costs to others and to my self-concept were greater than the short-term relief I gained.
Regardless whether others understood, let me off the hook, forgave me, insisted it didn’t matter, or maintained it was never a real obligation to begin with, I didn’t like being someone who defaulted on my word.
Not surprisingly, cumulative years of responsibility deficits have contributed to the heightened guilt I now feel.
By this point, the issue centers on how much responsibility I’m willing to accept. Is there a line, a limit, a clear-cut delineation between appropriate levels versus owning more than is truly mine?
Even beyond my obvious inability to carry the weight of the entire world, I have to admit that personal relationships also call for an accountability cap:
No matter how duty bound I feel toward any person, I can’t assume responsibility for that beyond my control.
Ah. There’s the rub. Truthfully, most things are beyond my control, and I have much less power than I like to think. Alas, I’m not the center of the universe. And it follows that fully embracing my relative insignificance should place natural restraints on my sense of responsibility to others.
Decreased responsibility results in fewer misses and accordingly less guilt. Simple mathematics. Problem solved?
Despite having a formula to lighten the load I bring to relationships, I still feel intensified responsibility to the world and its future.
It’s a different type of obligation, though. I needn’t deliver a specific result, such as properly fed children or accurately filed documents; instead, the accountability of a planetary citizen demands I contribute to a process that can’t guarantee results.
Although none of my efforts will actually save the world, I must nevertheless suss out the right actions and do them simply because they’re right.
If I don’t, then consciously or unconsciously, I’m choosing guilt over responsibility.
And why would I do that?
The Purpose Guilt Serves
In a nutshell, although guilt may not be helpful, it can be useful.
When I feel overwhelmed by the duties I’ve accepted and I’m racing toward burnout, guilt makes a handy escape valve to let off excess pressure—with two levels of release.
First, I can bleed the line for just enough guilt to seep around the knowledge that even though I’m getting it done, I’m not completing it as well as I could, given adequate time and energy.
Second, I can really crank open the valve when I hit meltdown mode and need to completely let go of one or more perceived obligations.
Guilt, with all its lasting repercussions, can be easier to handle than the perception of crushing responsibility.
No wonder I’ve noticed my guilt rising. Years, regrets, and awareness are mounting. My sense of responsibility is shifting, yet not decreasing. And I know how to live with guilt. I don’t like the feeling, but I’ve had a lifetime to become accustomed to its companionship.
With that explanation for my expanding shift from responsibility to guilt, I could stop. But I know there’s more. I’ve recognized something else that has been building up an unprecedented head of steam.
I have a responsibility that I’ve tried to ignore but can no longer avoid facing.
The Ultimate Responsibility
Earlier I addressed the connection of age and guilt, noting “I’m running out of time to accomplish all I feel I should.”
True. But time requires something more than accomplishment.
In my thinking and in this piece, I’ve been lightly brushing the edges of what I’m ultimately responsible for, but now I cut to the chase:
Yes, we are responsible for honoring time, the most precious, finite resource that exists. But in doing so, results are secondary. Process matters more than product.
Ultimately, I’m responsible for doing, not achieving.
And the greatest contributor to my guilt is that I’m running out of time to do what I value most--results aside—yet I continue wasting the time I have in worrying about outcome.
I tend to fixate on checklists, mental and physical.
As a result, I downplay my deepest, most enduring values of learning, development, exploration, and growth and instead measure my life against ingrained expectations of income, publication, and business success. Public product more than private process. Observable results over lived experience. Admirable achievement above right actions.
This soul-killing approach to my personal world applies to the larger one as well. Doomsday Clock 2019 rests at two minutes till midnight; and impotent to effect change, I add my resigned inertia to the widespread squandering of those one hundred twenty seconds.
In the final analysis, if I want to reduce my guilt for shirking the responsibility to put my time where my values lie, I need to fashion a different way forward.
Age does have benefits, and one is the clarity it provides. Perhaps it’s time I use that power to identify and claim what matters most to me at this stage of life.
Then I can choose to focus my remaining moments on experiences that align with my highest values.
Maybe I’ll even transform my mantra of guilt—“I’m constantly busy and accomplishing little”—into a statement of growth: “I’m comfortably busy and doing all that matters to me.”
What a wonderful sense of responsibility that would be.
Is there something you need to do with your time, regardless of results? How do you meet your responsibilities and avoid guilt? We’d love to read your thoughts in the Comments section below.