Photo by uwdigitalcollections
I have an issue with guilt. I don’t know where it comes from—I’m pretty sure my life isn’t guilt-worthy in any above-average way. I mean, I’ve certainly messed up more than a few times, and I’ve hurt others, but I don’t have a secret storehouse of heinous acts and crimes.
The more I’ve tried to get to the bottom of this guilt, the more I suspect it comes from an over-developed sense of responsibility. If I’m at the store and pick up something in aisle 3 only to decide by aisle 9 that I don’t really need it, I could never tuck it onto a shelf by the cat food, where it didn’t belong. I would feel horribly guilty. Instead, I detour back to aisle 3, secretly wishing I could be the sort of person who doesn’t care about these things (clearly there are many such people in the world).
Here’s another example: When I worked at a job (the kind in an office, with a boss), I often felt guilty for coming in late in the morning or taking a long lunch, even though I was just making up for the 12-hours I had put in the day before. What if my colleagues thought I was simply being lazy? Clearly my guilt is tied to my perception of other people’s perceptions and expectations of me (follow that?).
But what if I don’t wanna?
In my day-to-day life, all of this over-thinking translates to a regular battle between what I think I should do versus what I want to do. (By the way, I really think I am too old to be struggling with this.)
Recently, this inner struggle came into focus (again). A friend who has been wanting to get together was trying to talk me into going out for a late-night drink. I love this friend, but leaving the house on that particular night was the last thing I felt like doing. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, and there was nothing I felt like doing more than putting on sweats and curling up on the couch with a book. I went back and forth in my mind, trying to decide if I should buck up and do what I thought I should do, even if I didn’t feel like it, or if I should stand up for what I wanted and needed.
As a Christian, it’s pretty impossible for me to examine issues like guilt and selflessness apart from my faith. I’ve worked hard to reorient my understanding of God away from words like “guilt,” but does guilt have a role to play in my choices? Yes. I am also constantly striving to be more others’-centered, because I think the world would be a much more beautiful place if we all spent a bit more time focusing on the needs of others. But does that mean God wants me to ignore my own needs? No.
And then there’s this realization to throw into the mix: I might know what I think I need, but that’s not always what I actually need. In other words, I can be extremely moved/energized/filled by doing something I didn’t want to do. After all, I go to the gym three times a week to work out, right? And we all make our kids do lots of things they don’t want to do, not because we’re mean, but because we know, in the end, it’s good for them.
God doesn’t wield guilt
So where does that leave me and my guilt? Or my understanding of God and my perception of others’ perceptions? In a pretty confused place, but with a few crystallized truths to carry with me:
- God doesn’t use guilt to motivate me. He wants me to be motivated by love.
- Love for others begins with love for God and includes love for myself.
- Acting on all of that love doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive—I don’t have to take turns and choose between self care OR care of others.
- Focusing on fighting the guilt directly seems to be a losing cause. Maybe if I focus on my motivations for doing or not doing something, guilt will shut up and take a back seat all on its own.
- There isn’t always a right action and a wrong action to feel guilty or not-guilty about. There can be a variety of good and loving ways to make choices and move forward.
I did end up dragging myself off the couch that night, putting on some decent clothes and going out into the cold with my friend. And it ended up being a good thing for both of us. But I also think I could have honestly and lovingly advocated for myself, for a night of quiet rest at home, and if done right, not felt guilty about that choice.
Which is another way of coming at this realization: God would have blessed either choice. Seeing it that way makes me feel lighter already.