Thoughts on guilt by Trevor, Susan and Emily

Not guilty by Trevor

I’m not sure why guilt was ever included in our wiring system. Apart from acting as a religious crowbar, it just doesn’t seem to have any use outside the law. For the rest of us, it’s a pretty useless part of the emotional locker. I formulated this theory as a child by discovering that you either got away with it or you didn’t; given the former, there’d be nothing to worry about and in the latter case, I was going to cop it anyway so why clog things up by internalising?

Guilt is the blood of our legal system and those who wallow in it manipulate it with sheer wizardry. To mould it to their purpose they need a theatre with a judge – he or she’s a bit like a referee only not so active and disinterest reduces him/her to a supporting role. Then they need a jury of unwilling people totally ignorant of the law. Lastly, the star, the defendant, caught red-handed, now scrubbed up to cherubic level is asked the age-old question. Coached to Shakespearean standards by defence counsel, he faces the jury and firmly states ‘not guilty!’ It’s a stance adopted by people from all walks of life called to face their misdemeanours: the very rich, the very successful, the very powerful, politicians, judges and lawyers. They obviously subscribe to my childhood theory outlined above.

Childhood guilt by Susan

Like many members of my generation, I grew up drinking in guilt as though it was mother’s milk.  Child-rearing policies of that era were chiefly based around the idea of naughtiness, followed by punishment of some sort.  Psychology didn’t exist.  There were rules, many of which you didn’t even know about until you broke them, and then boy did you find out!  Guilt was layered on, trowelled on, you could say.  In my growing up years it didn’t enter my head that adults could be wrong.  Only I and my friends were wrong, and we knew this because it was spelled out loud and clear.

Children were not considered to have vulnerable, developing psyches; they were looked at as a set of behaviours, and ‘good girl’ or ‘bad girl’ were indispensable terms of child-rearing practice.  None of this, ‘I love you but I don’t like what you did’.  It was, ‘You’re bad’.  Or, perhaps just as damaging in its own way, ‘You’re good’, instilling a degree of smugness, totally undeserved.  This approach also led to parents comparing one child against another, setting up rivalries that in many families led to lasting jealousy between siblings.

If anything went wrong in the life of the family the kid tended to immediately be swamped by guilt, even if the event had absolutely nothing to do with that child.   It was a hot feeling that just swept over you, to be followed eventually by enormous relief when the true cause came clear and it was found the guilt lay on someone else (preferably one of your siblings).

What a see-saw we lived through, emotional turmoil as a way of life!  In my own case, I think it has made a big contribution to my readiness to assume that those who end up in trouble are probably innocent rather than probably guilty.  My initial reaction tends to be, ‘Let’s look at this carefully before judging’.  My heart goes out to people whose lives have led to them being labelled guilty or ‘bad’, perhaps because I was there time and again in those early years and I know what it feels like.  Not good!

Blame it on the Catholics by Emily

When I was at school I came to the conclusion that guilt had been invented by the Catholic religion to keep the rank and file well and truly in their place. I was convinced that from the 1500s, when church was more or less mandatory, that the attendees were given the fire and brimstone treatment so as not to disobey those in charge and disrupt the status quo. For example, if you covet your neighbour’s donkey, you’ll burn in hell for all eternity. Thank God my neighbour doesn’t have a nice ass!

The Catholics do guilt better than anybody I know. I have first-hand experience of this having befriended a number of the buggers over the years. Even the non-believers who were brought up on the stuff are plagued with much handwringing and anxiety over feeling bad about the smallest of things which to me seem inconsequential.

Now that I’m older, while I still reckon the church has a lot to answer for in the way that it encourages individuals to suffer from worry and stress, I can see that guilt in some cases is a good thing. Maybe guilt exists to prevent us doing what we morally shouldn’t do? How often do you hear people say they couldn’t cheat on their partner because they would feel too guilty? Is guilt some sort of moral compass that keeps the majority of us on the straight and narrow?

A case in point: have you ever been overpaid at the supermarket checkout when receiving your change and kept quiet? Or have you felt guilty and refunded the cashier straightaway? In this instance, if you suffer from feeling guilt, your brain processes the outcomes immediately – the shop assistant will be fired if they get found out or I will be stealing if I take that money knowing it is not mine.

I don’t remember much of when I used to be out on the turps in my youth, but I do recall a little note that someone had scrawled on the toilet wall in a pub I frequented. Every time I sat down I would read it to myself. I’m not sure I really understood what it meant at the time, but I now have a little more insight. I’m happy to pass on these words of wisdom to any Catholics, those who are experiencing a guilt ridden conundrum, or anyone feeling bad about something that is out of their control: ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.’

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