Learning to not always be sorry

by Kristin on November 13, 2013

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Phil Roeder

It was Monday morning, and I had just settled in at my desk, in hopes of tackling two days’ worth of work after taking Friday off. My desk sits in our sunroom under a row of windows facing our neighbors’ well-kept yard. The view is usually a pleasant one to work by, but that morning it was distracting: Our neighbors had commenced an enormous leaf raking operation.

They had employed all the tools you can imagine—not just rakes and a leaf blower, but also a wheelbarrow, appendages designed for picking up leaves, and a machine that mulched the leaves so they fit more efficiently in the bags. But it wasn’t the impressive operation that distracted me from my work. It was a nagging sense of guilt.

Yes, guilt. Guilt that my neighbors were out raking their leaves.

Never mind that they are retired and have plenty of time to maintain their yard, which happens to be one of their favorite hobbies. Never mind that they are active and fit, not weak and frail. Never mind that we have our own considerable mess of leaves to rake—it’s not as if somehow we were getting off scott-free. I was ignoring all of those valid points, and feeling guilty anyway. Why? Because the tree that’s the main culprit when it comes to messing up both of our yards is an ancient sycamore tree that is just barely on our property.

OK, so now you know I REALLY have guilt issues. I’ve never attempted to deny that truth, but in moments like these even I am shocked and appalled by how my conscience (or whatever it is) works.

Because, as you can probably guess, I had nothing to do with planting the tree, which is probably 150 years old. I also had nothing to do with my neighbors choosing to buy a house in this old, tree-lined neighborhood—they made that choice 20 or more years ago (which means they have been dealing with “my” tree for that many autumns). Plus, it’s a gorgeous old tree, providing a great canopy of shade all summer and standing regal all winter, its strong branches reaching into the sky, stark white against brilliant blue. Like pretty much everything worth loving, the sycamore comes with great qualities as well as those not-so-ideal traits (like the hundreds of dinner-plate-sized, ugly, brown leaves it drops in the fall).

We could easily focus this discussion on how messed up I am (and if one of you has insight on where this ridiculous brand of guilt comes from, I’d love to hear it). But I’d rather look at how sly and destructive guilt can be, and why it’s so important to analyze our guilt and see it for what it is.

Here’s what occurred to me in the aftermath of this tree-guilt: When we feel guilty all the time, about all kinds of things we aren’t responsible for, it does more than just beat us down and mess with our self-image. It desensitizes us to feeling remorse in general, and to taking responsibility for the things we should feel guilty about.

After all, the only way someone can live with so much ridiculous, misplaced guilty is by responding to it with anger, resentment, and a mantra of self-assurance that says, “Don’t worry, that’s not your fault.” After a while, that response can easily become a pattern triggered by any type of guilt, legitimate or not. The result could be that rather than making us feel sorry, guilt makes us feel mad. And rather than responding with a contrite heart, we might begin to respond with a hardened heart.

Does that make sense to any of you guilt-laden souls out there? When you think about it, isn’t it possible that this problem is at the root of a lot of anger that keeps people apart—keeps them from taking responsibility, expressing empathy, and asking forgiveness?

If that all seems possible, what can we do about it, personally? And what role might the church have?

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  • http://hyattregency.wordpress.com/ Sarah

    Yes. Yes. This is spot on. And it makes perfect sense.

    I’ve had a few people out to work on things at my house lately (electrician, plumber, etc) and ended up having conversations with both a coworker and my mom about how we feel guilty while these people are working. I won’t turn on the TV while someone is installing a hot water heater because I feel so bad that he has to work and I don’t and I’m not helping! I should be helping! but it would be such a disaster if I did help. I know nothing about hot water heaters. And I am taking time off work to be there so he can install it, and he doesn’t show up at my job and offer to help. He’s getting paid to install my water heater. But I made myself do schoolwork and other things I had been putting off because I had to do something not-fun while this poor guy was working at my house.

    I think for me part of it (all of it?) comes from being raised to always offer to help others and to be polite. Growing up in a Christian home that was all “love others!” and be kind and help people, etc. makes me tend to take on guilt for everyone else. And you’re exactly right, it builds and builds and leads to resentment because I can’t set normal emotional boundaries, as silly as it seems, about how it’s okay for me to not help my plumber even though I know nothing about plumbing.

    • kt_writes

      I love your example, in part because I can completely imagine feeling exactly the same way! As someone who works (ie makes a living) from home and cafes, I often feel guilty that I am not *really* working, or that people think I’m not really working because I’m not in an office with a boss looking over my shoulder. If I was sitting in my home office while someone I hired was mowing my lawn or raking my leaves, I would definitely feel guilty and lazy. So yes, I completely hear you. And I think your insight about being raised to always help others is spot on. Thanks for reading and sharing your perspective.

  • emmillerwrites

    I thought it was just me and my Lutheran guilt! Marriage has taught me a lot about grace — and God’s grace, by extension. The thing that helped me the most was when I was freaking out about something, assuming this was the consequence of something else I surely had done, and my husband said simply, “You know, God’s not trying to punish you.”

    • kt_writes

      Lutheran guilt, Catholic guilt…apparently there’s Methodist guilt, too! (That’s my upbringing.) Show me the Christian theology and upbringing that is guilt-free! So no, it isn’t just you. :) But you’re right, it’s all about grace—learning to recognize and receive it. I’m so glad you have a husband who is helping you learn that. Peace, friend.

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