A friend recently sent me an article about guilt and PTSD. There are two threads that I could get really excited about – why being casual about what wars we get into is a travesty and guilt as a general construct. The latter is, perhaps, a little easier to get my arms around.
I talk a lot about neutrality. This is because it might be my highest ideal. Guilt is not neutral.
Some of my favorite people are racked with guilt to the point of paralysis. It hurts just to watch them abuse themselves over infractions real and imagined. I never want anyone to feel guilty about their interaction with me. Mostly, because it offends my sense of my own autonomy. I choose my relationships. I choose my boundaries. I determine what I’ll put up with and what I won’t put up with.
I see a thread of causality that leads back to the primordial soup. We are all in a specific place on that thread at a specific time because of the incalculable decisions and choices that are stacked up behind us like a queue of cartoon characters bumping into each other with a sudden stop. When we interact with someone in any kind of relationship, our choices are defined by their choices, and their choices are defined by ours. At the time and the place that we are faced with any individual choice, we do the best we can at that time with the information that we have.
The article above talks about a soldier coming to the realization that, in a firefight around civilians, a baby has been shot. He’s devastated. And I know it’s asking too much to look at this rationally, but there are so many elements that are out of his control. Guilt implies that you could have done better. But how could that soldier have done better? He didn’t point at the country and say “we’re going to war with them.” He didn’t bring the baby to the “thank Allah you’re here” rally. He didn’t start the firefight. He did the best he could given the circumstances and there is nothing to say that his bullet was the one that shot the child. It was a clusterf*ck and it was always going to be a clusterf*ck given the variables.
As usual, I have caveats. There are places and choices where guilt is absolutely appropriate: anything that involves willful harm to another, especially children. But most of us, most of the time, have nothing to feel guilty about. We are where we are for reasons. We make the best choices we can at any given point in time given the alchemy of perceived options, our assessment of what best meets the given requirements, and our estimation of what we can succeed at.
The truth is that we don’t have as much control over our lives as we think we do. We’re random molecules, eight balls being bounced off of the walls of a pool table with only the dimmest of understandings of the laws of physics that spin us one direction or another. Subject to the friction of the felt under us, the dusting of chalk on the cue, the force with which we’re hit… For normal people who experience guilt, there’s always this underlying assumption that you could have done better. But if there had been a “better” option at the time that you could see, wouldn’t you have gone with that? Guilt also assumes more control than we’ve got, and a position of superiority over the people around you. If you could have done better, then they could have too. We all have the same standard: the best we can with what we’ve got. Hopefully, with each iteration, each generation, we get a little more and can do a little better. Isn’t that enough?
I don’t know. The people that I know who are most plagued with guilt are the ones who are most prone to holding themselves to a high standard in any given moment and are always doing the best they can with what they’ve got. And their guilt ends up twisting them into painful contortions. Given its head, it takes over everything. Suddenly, the best you can do with what you’ve got isn’t very much at all because everything in you is struggling with this guilt that has no basis in reality in the first place.
Kind of a waste, no?
So… on this Monday, go a little easy on yourself. Self-flagellation over what’s behind you just means you aren’t available today to do what matters most. If being a little easy on yourself turns into the disaster you fear, you can always go back to your self loathing.