by Sara Etgen-Baker
Guilt and worry are perhaps the most common forms of my personal distress. With guilt I focus on a past event, feeling dejected, hurt, or angry about something that I did or said, and use up my present moments being occupied with feelings over past behavior. With worry, I use up my valuable nows, obsessing over a future event. Whether looking back or looking forward, the result is the same: I’m throwing away the present. Why would I do such a thing, and where does my need for guilt and worry come from?
Like most of you, I’ve been subjected to a conspiracy of guilt in my lifetime, an uncalculated plot to turn me into a veritable guilt machine. The machine works something like this: Someone sends me a message designed to remind me that I’ve somehow been a bad person because of something I said or didn’t say, felt or didn’t feel, did or didn’t do. I respond by feeling bad in the present moment, becoming the guilt machine; a walking, talking, breathing invisible contraption that responds with guilt whenever the appropriate fuel is poured into me. And, I am a well-oiled guilt machine, for I’ve been totally immersed in our guilt-producing culture.
Why have I bought into the worry and guilt messages that have been laid upon me over the years? Largely because I’ve bought into my inculturation that says I’m “bad” if I don’t feel guilty, and “inhuman” if I don’t worry. It all has to with caring and what caring looks like to other people. The subtle message seems to be, “If I really care about anyone or anything, then I must show this concern by feeling guilty about the terrible thing(s) I’ve done, or by giving some visible evidence that I’m concerned their future by worrying and fretting about them.
For me, guilt is not merely a concern with the past; it’s a vicious cycle producing present-moment immobilization about a past event. The degree of immobilization can run from being mildly upset to being depressed. Let me be clear. Learning from my past and vowing to avoid repeating some specific behavior is not guilt. Guilt occurs when I prevent myself from taking action now as a result of having behaved a certain way in the past.
Learning from my mistakes is healthy and a necessary part of my growth and personal responsibility. Guilt, on the other hand, is unhealthy because I’m using up my energy in the present feeling hurt, upset, and even depressed about a historical happening. In that sense, guilt seems like such a useless emotion. It’s futile and unhealthy. I must remember, therefore, that no amount of guilt on my part can ever undo anything, and no amount of worrying can change the future.
A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing. Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.