When I was a young child, my parents used to listen to the radio a lot, and it was our national radio station, the ABC, which was predominantly broadcasters doing interviews and a whole lot of news. Not that that’s a bad thing—I still listen to this station nowadays, although less often since there is usually too much child-related noise around for me to hear properly. The point is, when I was a child, I heard a lot of news, and I would just absorb bits and pieces, while I was playing. This had the advantage of making me more worldly… although now that I think about it, it may have been a bit of a disadvantage, considering my social ineptitude.
However, what I remember most is that some incidents really stuck with me, because I couldn’t quite make sense of them at the time. The first was hearing about someone who had been charged with a crime, and the newsreader stated that the accused had pleaded ‘not guilty.’
‘But!’ my tween-aged self protested to itself. ‘What if they’re lying? If they’re guilty, are they really going to admit it? How can we trust them? They’ve done something wrong, so what’s to stop them being dishonest, to boot*? And why would they say they’d done it, considering that might get them into more trouble?’
It occurred to me that people might actually lie, even when they were under oath.
The second incident was about an IRA bombing. During the early 80s, these acts of terrorism obviously made the international news, and I recall quite distinctly, a male broadcaster telling us that the IRA had claimed responsibility.
‘But!’ my young self exclaimed. ‘Why on earth did they say they did it? NOW EVERYONE WILL KNOW.’
It didn’t occur to me that people might want to claim responsibility in order to spread fear, to increase notoriety.
It’s an odd thing, guilt. The person who commits a crime and is found guilty may not plead guilty—may not even feel guilt. I wonder about the fact that we use the word ‘guilty’ in both cases. And I wonder about the justification some feel when they commit an act which consciously goes against what society holds as ‘right’. After a bombing or mass shooting, many of us wish for the perpetrators to feel remorse, to feel guilt. We want them to be sorry for what they did. How do we cope with the idea that they’re not? How do we impress upon someone our need for them to feel guilty?
Guilt seems like such a complexity. I definitely have a complex relationship with it. More recently, when I’ve felt guilty, I’ve been trying to work out where the guilt is originating. Is it because I feel remorseful that I’ve broken a promise? Is it because I feel as if there are expectations from without? Is it because I feel like guilt is the emotion I’m ‘supposed’ to be feeling?
More and more, I’m realising how destructive guilt can be. It is a means for control, a means by which I might restructure my day or my actions or my decisions so that I can feel better about them. But whether I feel better or worse is only going to have an effect on me. Others can project their expectations onto me, and I can take that on board, but only I can make myself feel guilty (or not). And only I am going to feel the guilt.
That last is what’s been really niggling at me lately. Emotions are internal experiences; we can show how we feel, but nobody else can feel what we are feeling. Grief, joy, despair, guilt—they’re all internal sensations. And of all those, guilt seems to be one of the most destructive.
Feeling bad will accomplish nothing. Guilt accompanies a failure, a mistake, a poor decision, a lack of judgement. Guilt comes after the fact, or at least after the decision. Guilt is the realisation that this was not the way we might have wanted things to go. And knowing that, how does feeling guilty help anything?
Without reparation, guilt is a useless emotion, and I have made a conscious decision to carry less of it. Instead of feeling guilty about something, I consider why I’m feeling that way, and try to make a change, to make amends. That could come in the form of an apology, or it could mean I just have to stop procrastinating and do what it is I needed to do.
This is a bit of a paradigm shift, because I think I’m used to simply carrying the guilt. And I think there is a societal expectation that we all carry some guilt. In a way, we want to use an admission of guilt to ascertain remorse, and while those two emotions might go hand in hand, they’re not interchangeable. Deciding that a person is guilty of something does not mean they feel guilty. It certainly does not always mean they feel remorse. And whatever they feel, it ultimately means nothing to anyone—least of all, themselves—unless a change in behaviour follows. From a verdict of guilt in the courts, to claiming responsibility for a terrorist attack, we might try to influence someone’s emotions, in the hopes that they will feel guilt. But it’s up them, whether or not they feel guilty.
To feel less guilt, I need to be more proactive. I would like to make less promises and be more realistic. I would like to realise that a day is only so long and my patience and time only so finite. I would like to accept what I can do, and celebrate it. To admit that it’s really fine—it’s wise, even—to change plans, when the situation calls for it. I expect that this will be an ongoing evolution for me, but so far, it seems to be working well, and it’s doing wonderful things for my mental health. It’s also giving me some real insight into how we, as a group, try to influence others with guilt, and some of the benefits and failings of this. I suspect I’ll have more to say on that another time.
Right now, however, it’s late on Sunday night. The washing up is not quite done, and my usual Friday-deadline for this blog post is past, and I didn’t put the clean clothes away yet… but I’m going to bed, all the same.
*I may or may not have used ‘to boot’ when I was ten, but I wouldn’t put it past myself. Did I mention I was particularly socially inept?