Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On Guilt

"But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing." ~John Berryman, from Dream Song 29

Originally I was going to call this piece 'On Christian Guilt', but then I realized that would be somewhat disingenuous. Even if you can put an interesting spin on the kind of guilt Christians experience (they are guilty for the wrongful execution of their deliverer, thousands of years before they were born), we all experience guilt. There is some kind of crucifixion--real or imagined--hanging over everyone's head.

And I harp on the Christians too much. I harp on them like a person in recovery harps on people who are still 'stuck in the lifestyle'. The harping is incessant, and probably misplaced, but it's done--at least 25% of it--in love and concern.

There is a pressure to live right. Or if not right, then at least authentically. To live right & authentically would take a true feat of skill and attention, so maybe the only thing we can really aim for is to live attentively. But even that is hard, because we tend to want to fall into a rhythm. In this regard, maybe music is our worst and most beautiful enemy.

Isn't that what the Buddhists want us to do? To disappear into the process, to become one with the ebb & flow of life? Don't they want us to be just one small motion in a great dance, each of us amounting to the twitch of a muscle or the falling of an eyelash? Can we have it both ways?

Surely there are some of us who feel guilty but aren't guilty, and some who are guilty and do not feel guilty, and some who feel guilty and are guilty, and some who don't feel guilty and are not guilty. Regardless of whether we actually have free will, we feel like we have it, so it bothers us when things don't line up the way we want them to. It makes us feel guilty when we look back on our past and see how badly we've behaved. Anybody with any kind of aspirations to an ideal state is going to be constantly disappointed in themselves. Anybody who's ever known anyone who has committed suicide is going to have plenty of 'what if' questions to ask themselves, and none of us will ever get any rest over it. I don't know if we should want to, really, although maybe it would be nice to take a break every now and then.

Grief is the dirt under the fingernails life. Grief is the understanding that something has gone wrong, and--for me at least--guilt is the result of feeling that more could have been done.


Willie Y said...

We all, like you say, live with a little guilt. You do the best you can in how you live your life. When my brother killed himself with drink, I went on for years beating myself up over what could I have done to stop his downward spiral. In the end I could do nothing. Time heals all wounds.

Although the most acute judges of the witches and even the witches themselves, were convinced of the guilt of witchery, the guilt nevertheless was non-existent. It is thus with all guilt.
Friedrich Nietzsche

the elegant ape said...

guilt... the one true universal.
elegant ape

I am a person who feels guilty for crimes I have not committed, or have not committed in years. The police search the train station for a serial rapist and I cover my face with a newspaper, wondering if maybe I did it in my sleep. The last thing I stole was an eight-track tape, but to this day I'm unable to enter a store without feeling like a shoplifter. It's all the anxiety with none of the free stuff.

DAVID SEDARIS, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

Spencer Troxell said...

Willie: I wonder if we should want time to heal all wounds. Maybe some things should leave us wounded?

Great Nietzsche quote.

Elegant: David Sedaris is a great man! Good excerpt.