Guilt

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.

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Guilt

5 thoughts on “Guilt

  1. Entrope,

    I’m generally fascinated by you. I have read a fair bit of your stuff and it is honest and intelligent.
    This guilt perspective you have is on the one hand is easy to agree with…….I’m not here to harm you, I am pretty sure you could kick back hard enough for me to question my sanity in hassling you. I know you will have something to say back…..it just would be nice if you didn’t come out swinging (nah…..feisty is fine).

    I agree with your rational dismissal of guilt, especially typical garden variety guilt. I also know a little about PTSD and how it can accumulate over time. For people to extend themselves into grand conflicts…..sometimes they have to expand their capabilities (often in unrealistic ways). These high expectations for themselves allow heroic feats from everyday people who just somehow pull it off more often than not. It can be very difficult for them when they fail. So on the one hand I see you being right…….on the other I see some people striving to do things beyond what most of us do in our daily lives and in pushing themselves this way they sustain injury.

    Everyone struggles…….some people are just a little more healthy about it from the outset by recognizing their limitations, or at least not taking it too seriously when they fail. Others suffer for their “art” (but some of the art is pretty cool).

    RidicuRyder

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  2. Sorry to disappoint, but I actually don’t have any swinging to offer as I don’t exactly disagree. It’s rarely the idiots or the arseholes that carry a burden of unmanageable guilt – it is usually the best of us that are drowning in guilt.

    Unfortunately, the question must be asked: if you give others in your life acceptance based on the assessment that we’re all doing the best we can at the time with the information and resources we’ve got, but you don’t extend that courtesy to yourself… Does that mean that you carry the conviction that you’re bigger, more formidable, stronger, tougher, and smarter than a mere normal? In my mind, if you can judge yourself to be that much worse than everyone else, then you must believe yourself capable of being that much better than everyone else. That’s a hard question because the person I know who carries the most unrealistic burden of guilt I’ve ever encountered is also pretty damn humble. So it certainly isn’t a function of ego in the same way that your average megalomaniac is subject to ego. However, the logic stands: to be that much worse than everyone else, you must also be that much better.

    In any case, this line is what I’m getting at: ” I see some people striving to do things beyond what most of us do in our daily lives and in pushing themselves this way they sustain injury.”

    Which is why my ideal is an absence of opinion on myself. Once an opinion is formed, you get knocked off of neutral and it’s only from neutral that you can see clearly. The individual that sparked this whole conversation about guilt can’t possibly see anything clearly. And the warped lens warps everything. Which is a shame.

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  3. I like everything you are saying here, my megalomaniac even finds most of it charming. I am honing in on this idea of needing an equilibrium to exist though, this absence of self opinion, it seems a little too sterile. I also find fault with a few things below (I am not really advocating guilt, just really being more Devil’s advocate).

    Unfortunately, the question must be asked: if you give others in your life acceptance based on the assessment that we’re all doing the best we can at the time with the information and resources we’ve got,
    (this is a nice assessment to make but overly generous at times – a spiritual cleanliness has highest merit – I really do wish most of us had a better way of applying this knowledge – myself included)
    but you don’t extend that courtesy to yourself… Does that mean that you carry the conviction that you’re bigger, more formidable, stronger, tougher, and smarter than a mere normal?
    (striving for something more requires you to find something beyond the merely normal……all these smart asses jumping off high platforms with wings around a century ago saw the promise of human flight – they were driven by some kind of conviction)
    In my mind, if you can judge yourself to be that much worse than everyone else, then you must believe yourself capable of being that much better than everyone else. That’s a hard question because the person I know who carries the most unrealistic burden of guilt I’ve ever encountered is also pretty damn humble. So it certainly isn’t a function of ego in the same way that your average megalomaniac is subject to ego. However, the logic stands: to be that much worse than everyone else, you must also be that much better. (maybe guilt isn’t about this exact scale you employ here, maybe for some people it is a straight up disappointment in not being able to do more, to go beyond yourself……..even if by extension it also means going beyond others as you point out well)

    Entrope, I often wish I was more like you. I am interested in the realization of man (the species if you like) and I do engage in self ridicule (or at least attempt to take my Megalomaniac less seriously). Sure my lens is warped, but I can logically look at things like you do, only after a while I sorta feel like a cat jumping across the carpet onto a sunspot……know what I mean?

    RidicuRyder
    p.s. I suspect my cat has pounced on you in a similar fashion before……funny to watch though.

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  4. I suppose being opinionless is rather sterile, though it is a goal, not so much of a reality. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I’m not holding myself out as a paragon of anything. These are just the things that keep me functional…

    For example. I look back on 2006 – 2009, a time period in which I was a wreck. In short, I was sitting in the middle of a kiddie pool kicking, splashing, and screaming like a drowning person. All I had to do was stop with the freaking out and I might have realized that I was okay, that I could crawl out of the pool at any time if I didn’t like it, but whatever I did, drowning wasn’t really a threat. I wasted a lot of time and if I let myself, I feel a kind of revulsion at all the things I didn’t accomplish in that time period that were available to me. I’m embarrassed by my limitations, by the way I let my emotional crisis bleed all over everything. Unfortunately, going backwards isn’t an option. And beating my fists on the glass window that time places between us and the past… well, it does several things. First, I end up with bloody hands for no reason. Second, I waste right now and simply add to the pile of things I wish I’d done differently because looking backwards absorbs every potentiality in today. Third, I continue to funnel power into a situation that is in every way removed from my current reality. Something that can’t possibly touch me today is the beneficiary of all that I’m capable of right now. That’s just dumb.

    So my opinion on guilt is fundamentally pragmatic. (As is the drive to have no opinion at all on who I am.) I am more productive, I get closer to what I value, I am more compassionate with those around me, I am more present and available for what needs to be done today if, when I look backwards, I view who I was with compassion instead of an expectation that she could have been more than what she was at the time with what she had.

    I don’t think you have to sacrifice drive when you excise the guilt. When you’re shooting for the stars and you land on the moon, are you an abject failure that should have done more, tried harder, gone further? I say aim as high as you want. Have ambitions that dwarf everyone in the room. But those high standards don’t have to lead to guilt. You can aim high, fall short, dust yourself off, and show up again to try tomorrow. To me, it’s the showing up that matters. Guilt gets between you and showing up. It’s a parasite. Kept in check, you can coexist symbiotically. Allowed to grow out of balance, it kills the host.

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  5. Soooooo, you have basically dialed it all in to where I can’t hassle you anymore.

    I have read some of your older stuff and thought I should say it has been insightful and a tonic for my recent divorce and other upheavals in my life, I just wanted to say thanks – your site is one of my favorites.

    Mark

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