I have rather vivid memories of experiencing deep guilt in my life. Surely, I do not intend to make this statement as a declaration of a special ability that I may have, you know, not quite a super power but still a cool stunt to show off to friends. Really, I only seek to briefly discover what sort of role guilt has played in my life, the things it made me do, the people who saw it fit to wield it over me, and how I had to realize what it was doing to me and others to exist like this, and eventually, to work on refraining from doing so. I may not admit to there being a necessity for brandishing guilt like a weapon, to achieve some result or the other, but then again, I will also not deny that for whatever reason, it is an emotion that we seem to be burdened with experiencing and forcing others to feel too. So, how much guilt do you feel, or do you make others feel, and why? What is the purpose of endless guilt? And, how do we attempt to live imperfect lives free of guilt, when without our conscious knowledge or action, we could have committed an atrocity for which we will feel guilty sure enough?
Guilt aids Realization
As a child, guilt formed a large part of my average day, now that I try and recall. I am going to attempt to garner a little sympathy here by saying that as an only child, I often felt like the load of bearing the guilt that I had heaped upon myself, or had been showered upon me by my parents, relatives or well-wishers, was always that much harder to bear because there wasn’t anyone else to share it with. If a finger was pointed my way, whatever had just happened, or whatever the person pointing was talking about had everything to do with me, and not in any positive sense, usually. Come to think of it, not even a handful of conversations that involved pointed fingers in my general direction had very little to do with anything uplifting, as it were, so it was fairly easy to learn to cower, whether physically or in the mind, every time the finger bared its rigid questioning.
Surely I was not committing any legally punishable offences, just the usual stuff, like not going to the bathroom one last time before going to bed, not brushing my teeth because I forgot, or wasting a little food because I had either overestimated my appetite, or had discovered that what I saw was not exactly what I was putting in my mouth. This last one is a type of guilt I quickly learned to impose upon myself, I suppose mostly because I was reflecting the sentiments that flew out in assault of the transgressor each and every time the sum result of a meal was a not-empty plate, but also because this was a time in my life when the Channel 33 ten o’clock news show seemed to exhibit a lot of file footage of people starving in places like what was then Ethiopia. Interestingly enough, I would learn later on in my life that as much food aid was doled out to countries who needed it, an equal or greater quantity was destroyed to stabilize prices and to not impede “market” functionality, and that for some who lived in Ethiopia during this time, they too were shocked to find out about the extent of this famine, because it was isolated, and they only heard about it when they switched on their TVs and watched the news, as opposed to themselves being in the midst of a food shortage crisis.
I say that guilt aids realization because it has helped me reflect on all of my actions, forcing me to take a serious call on how I feel about things, one way or another, and to remain decidedly flexible on issues or debates based on not having to compromise what I believe in, no matter how great the external pressure. It can be difficult to see this sort of outcome based on what had to be endured in the process, but being forced to question absolutely everything, as painful as it was to try to figure things out when you are an infant and ill equipped to do so, well, it has paid off in the long-term, I must admit. Personally, I know that none of the answers I have sought in my life has come very easily to me, so perseverance was always being tested. But, along with perseverance, and especially as a teenager, it led to bigger questions that asked about the purpose of existence, and while I know many people who have died in the process of attempting to escape the clutches of this question, I was not one of them. At the end of the day, each and every day, I was forced to take stock of what happened during that day, what stood out as out of the ordinary, or never-before experienced, and how I would have to deal with it so that I would be able to add it to a list of experiences and get on with my life. Now that I am older, I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect because I find that many of my contemporaries are unable to take stock of their own existence, attempting to eradicate the manifestations of supposed misfortune instead of making their target becoming resistant to having to react one way or another to things that are potentially headed their way, without playing the waiting game beforehand, or the peddling of tales of their miseries afterwards. I know it was tough to deal with guilt, and it still is, but I would not have had it any other way.
Varieties of Guilt
If there was a flavor of guilt that I had not yet come across, there were people ready and waiting, very much unlike the person behind the counter at Baskin Robbins wants you to try every single flavor on display, to dish out what I needed to get my head around, so that I would be a better person. Funny thing was, whether I got it or not, the dosage never stopped imposing itself on me, and it got to a stage where I simply had to decide to fast for a while, and not be a willing target for misguided, but supposed intentions expressed in my best interests. To start out the flavor sampling, the most obvious type of guilt was that associated with food, and having me believe that my waste was directly and somehow almost immediately, responsible for someone going hungry, or worse, dropping dead. I wish this had caused me to eat without wasting, as opposed to having every meal be a nerve-wracking experience because I was pretty sure I was not going to finish something because I did not like the way it tasted, or looked, or smelled. Of course, I was no stranger to poverty and people afflicted by it, because growing up in another country, more affluent than my own nation of citizenship, and returning home for holidays, it was more than apparent that I was far more fortunate than others around me were. Strangely enough, the original sense of guilt that I had, especially about being more well-off than others in my neighborhood or immediate vicinity, well, that was quickly quelled by the same well-wishing entourage of loved ones with the logic that “they” were poor and not to be offered any sympathy because if you showed them kindness, they would take you for a ride. Perhaps of equal portions ironic denial was the fact that at least one side of family that I came from was very officially part of the lower castes in the Indian Caste System, but that was obviously before mobility of labor enabled international job opportunities to raise themselves above the associated level of financial near-nothingness. It was a strange sort of instruction, to be told to feel selectively sorry for people, and to also be introduced to the fact that those who excelled in exhibiting a certain kind of appearance were themselves deceptively concealing about their truth.
Another kind of guilt, one that is still attempted at being driven into my apparently impervious skull, is that of age, and according the proper respect. In our household, somehow precariously poised on Western Philosophies with the trappings of Eastern (read “Malayalee) Culture, showing the required level of respect in thought, speech, action, and all things behavioral was a gigantic deal. I don’t seem to be able to shake images of being forced to serve guests who visited us at home tea and snacks, at the age of four onwards, struggling to balance the weight of the laden tray and my own tiny self in relation to it, remembering to serve “Uncle” before “Aunty”, who would then be followed by their “Children”, unless of course the kids were of much younger age, in which case they were to be served first, but only if there was no one older in the group, like a “Grandparent”, where the prudent thing to do was to serve them first, but again, “Grandfather” followed by “Grandmother”, and never to forget that this was to be observed in order of “Uncles’ Parents” before “Aunty’s Parents”, should this be the case, unless… Pretty hard for a child to keep a track of, you will admit, especially when all he wants to do is anything but this, or at least, play with the visiting “Children” his age. What certainly added to the tension was knowing that while I was making my way across the carpeted floor, attempting my own world record attempt at weight lifting and serving guests at the same time, crisscrossing between them to maintain serving order in terms of age, determined much like movie credits that begin with the line “In Order of Appearance”, my mother’s hawkish gaze was just waiting for me to screw up, so that upon my return to the kitchen, she would discipline me and let me know that I had done wrong and let everyone down. This last part was a double whammy that I had much difficulty getting over, each and every time, because it burdened me with the overwhelming guilt of letting the team down. I honestly do not believe that I had to deal with such a thing at that age, and among other things, it was one of the things that I am strangely grateful for because it transformed my generally curious “Why” into a resentment, one that allowed me to persist in identifying all of the gaps of my culture, which as anyone will agree, there are many of, no matter which culture, even the most benign in appearance.
See, I am all for respect for age, because if nothing else, surviving longer than other people is a matter of appraising acknowledgement. That is why we celebrate birthdays, is it not? However, in my life, I have come across more than enough people of age who were stupid, or to put it more politely, seemed to exhibit a level of intelligence that was significantly lower than the average, prevailing level of intelligence. I have met them in my personal life, and my professional life. At the same time, however, I have met plenty of people younger than me who exhibit a wonderfully advanced level of thinking, and before you start thinking this is a bias towards technological knowledge, it is not. I have had the good fortune of coming across people far younger than myself who have shown great vision in having ideas to aid the human condition, putting themselves on this path of persevering against all odds, because this is what they believe their purpose to be. Interactions with people like this have opened my eyes to the possibility that age has nothing to do with things like wisdom, as we seem to understand and glorify it. It is entirely possible to look to generations yet to take the reins of our civilization-in-decline for the necessary answers. The problem seems to be that those who are older, and therefore “know”, seem hell-bent on reinforcing the fact that those who have not been around as long as them have no idea of what life is like, and are therefore not qualified to participate in any attempts at its betterment. So much for listening actively to each other…
Perhaps one of the biggest and most nebulous types of guilt, or at least the source of a lot of misery, was the guilt of having the family, in whatever permutation and combination of the “Mother’s” and “Father’s” sides of this entity, and certainly the associated sides that were once, twice, three times removed, or more, God forbid, experience any amount of “loss of face”, no matter how miniscule. Now, I use the word “nebulous” for a variety of reasons. First, the sheer number of individuals who make up this nameless, faceless blob whose every honor must be kept intact, is enormous and impossible to define. Think about all the personalities, character traits, tendencies, proclivities, general thought processes and chemical imbalances, etc. that have to be taken into account. There is no way such an indefinable mass could be dealt with in any rational manner, especially when it comes to something like causing offence due to potential misperception, in the average, most common case scenario. Second, though most of the people in the “family” were of the same ethnicity and religious background, the sheer variety of levels of existence, ranging from “absolutely Malayalee” to “New-age Global Desi” is impossible to categorize in any legitimate manner. There were those with super religious beliefs, who visited the nearby temple every day, but at the same time, embraced a modern fusion of lifestyle in such things as diet and apparel choices. At the same time, there were those who, while not proclaimed atheists, were very fond of attempting to learn and pass on the “traditional ways”, because they valued the simplicity and harmony with the environment that these practices encouraged. Pretty hard to figure out how not to offend all, some, or anyone really, and we have not even gotten to the next variety of reason yet. Third, even if you accepted this as a reality of your life, and the fact that it would deal with everything, absolutely everything in your life, it was always rudely shocking to discover that your “everything” did not account for a particular way in which someone in the family is now offended, and this could crop up as often as it liked. I don’t want to make it sound like a minefield of an existence, but I will say that for someone like me, who hardly took a risk, certainly not when I was younger, always trying to not offend at the very least, it still got a bit much from time to time. Another way in which I have managed to gauge this is by attempting to introduce friends of mine from different cultures and places around the world, to my way of life, either by having them visit, or by inviting them over for some gathering that has members of the family, and I have always gotten responses that indicated to me the fact that they felt a little stifled by all the apparent rules, especially the unwritten ones.
Come by for Lunch…
To give you an example, say you come over for lunch. It should be a simple show up a little earlier, make polite conversation, have lunch, compliment the food, the chef, the hosts for the experience and opportunity, make a return invitation, say thank you, and leave, right? Not exactly. When you do show up, it’s nice to have a gift, but you have to make sure it’s a general gift, and as such, it must be accessible to all, which is to say, you can’t show up with a box of chocolates, because there may be those who are diabetic, and you don’t want to show up with sugar-free stuff, because the kids won’t like it, and they are not going to see a gift of candy and not want some piece of the action, so you will have to show up with chocolate just for them too. Or maybe you want to try fruits. Do you pick up a fruit basket kind of assortment? What if not everyone gets enough of everything? Will they like the fruits in the assortment? What if they do not like any of it? Should you show up with lots of only one kind of fruit? What if you guess wrong and show up with something that they do not like, or worse, grows in their backyard? Wine? What?!?!? Toys? No. Magazines? Nope. Gift certificates at their favorite bookstore so they can get what they want? Not going to happen, mostly because this would apply to only a very few people, and even then, the “right amount” is always a huge cause for concern on the part of the giver.
When you decide on what to bring, and show up with perfect timing, be prepared to indulge in some snack before lunch. You may not refuse the snack if one is offered to you. If a snack, or at least a beverage is not offered to you, please do not make the mistake of asking for something, or worse, asking what time lunch will be served. This is a good opportunity to find out what else is in store for you, like say, finding out who will not be joining you for lunch even though they are present, because they like to stick to their way of doing things and have lunch in their rooms, or somewhere other than where everyone else eats their meals. Also, and you are welcome to politely refuse in most cases, a predetermined amount of entertainment will be thrust upon you, from the latest album of family events, to the headlines and a news roundup of at least the last few months, domestic and international, or just plain “Let’s see what’s on TV”. Speaking of TV, be very careful and attentive about whether or not the TV was on when you arrived, or if they switched it on after you arrived. In the case of the latter, you may, should you feel the urgent and unavoidable need, request a change of channel to something more suited to you. Be warned, however, that this could easily be perceived as your being inconsiderate of the viewing preferences of everyone else, it does not matter if you just met them. Now, if the TV was on when you came in, then by all means, do not, I repeat, do not even think of making a suggestion for a channel to watch! This is very much the case if there is an older relative and member of the household who is glued to the set, whereby any request for channel change will be an immediate sign of disrespect, first, of the preference of the older person in question, second, by virtue of the older person’s age, third, by taking “make yourself at home” literally, etc. And we have not even gotten down to eating lunch!
When you do sit down to eat, the whole eating with cutlery versus eating with your hands debate has different leanings in different households. From personal experience, asking for a spoon to eat my rice at lunch still gets me comments like “Just stepped off the ship”, a reference to the British and using their ways to consume my meal. You’d be surprised to learn that I was related to these people, so imagine the scorn, never in-person of course, but certainly after the fact, that an unsuspecting guest who had nothing to do with the family, would be subjected to. Now that you are eating lunch, what if you do not like something that you have been served. Wait, what if you have a “dietary preference”, or worse, a “condition” that prohibits you from eating something…something that is on the table, but which you are going to have to refuse. What then? I hope you are carrying a gun, because at this point, you are going to want to unsheathe it, hold it up to your head, point it between your eyes as if you were trying to look down the barrel with both eyes, and pull the trigger. Yes, numerous apologies will be heaped upon you, most profusely, of that you can be sure, for not having looked into your dietary restrictions earlier. And if I’m there, well, I can tell you that it would be my fault for not letting them know, even if I didn’t know myself. But, just wait until you leave, because that is when the post mortem analysis and character evaluation happens. Let us assume, for the sake of this example not getting any worse, that everything until this point was satisfactory, and that you have completed your lunch. You ate to your heart’s content, and everything was just perfect.
Now that you have eaten, however, how long do you need to stay back so that it will not seem insulting to think you only showed up for the food? Fifteen minutes? An hour? What if they see you yawning a little during your after-lunch conversation and ask you to have a siesta in the guest bedroom? Do you accept? Do you insist on leaving? Will it be rude to not accept? Or are you afraid that it may be an invitation to something else, like say, progressive levels of becoming, in some way, “part of the family”? You know, first lunch, then a snooze, then maybe hanging out socially in a public location, and then the introduction as “A friend of mine” or a “A friend of ours”, Donnie Brasco style, to show the ultimate level of acceptance publicly, with “family” protection to boot! What if you had something to do after lunch, and that need was rather urgent? What then? Would you excuse yourself a few minutes after finishing your meal? Would you have told them in advance, like as soon as you showed up? You think that would help? Even though you may be the guest, if you are a person who is younger than the host is, then you have no idea what you are talking about. That is their way of saying that you have no say in the outcome of this invitation for lunch, not even perhaps, in the overall duration of this meal, which could easily span eight hours, if you are not careful. That is like going to work, except the entire day was just one giant lunch break. So, are you trapped? Are you at the mercy of your host? Honestly? From personal experience again, and only for those not faint of heart, or frail of mind, you can guarantee yourself a good time no matter who or what, if you pay no heed to what impression you care to create that is outside of how you perceive yourself, and are comfortable with this perception, of course. Being yourself and not giving a damn about the consequences, perhaps even having to get up and say that you are unable to participate if things get any more stifling than they currently are, while it won’t earn you any points with the hosts, will certainly leave without having to be in the midst of such polluting energy, and have to process it for however long thereafter.
If lunch is this difficult, by invitation, mind you, then imagine what day-to-day living can be like. If you were able to discern who or what you would be offending, at any stage in the meal, or the lead up to it, or after you were done, then please let me know. To me, it was always a case of not doing anything, save for breathing, but this also not too loudly, or in any way that would invite a derisive comment in acknowledgement of it, until I was asked to do something. It was the only way to be, but obviously, this led to the notion that I was either being difficult, or was totally uninterested in what it meant to be part of the family.
Living with Guilt
Extrication was the only option. Now, I’m not going to claim any success by exercising this option, mostly because I am still, very much, in the grasp of trying to figure out my own path forward, without having to bear the burden of any other group of people, let alone one other person trying to sell me a version for a more stable existence, wrenched from the very same imperfect set of lives in decay I’ve witnessed for all of my life so far. Sure, there have been some positive examples, but most of the versions I admire have been found only in works of fiction. I chose to not live with the burden of guilt, guilt that I felt was unnecessarily being carried around, like a bag of pennies, weighing us down a little more each day, as we find more pennies to add to the bag. Much like pennies, while the overall dimensions of the bag are easily visible to all, all those to whom we readily flash our problems at, lamenting that nothing ever changes while in the process of doing so, but in the end, they are useless unless converted to more manageable forms of the same currency, so as to be used positively, to purchase forgiveness or a return to reason, as opposed to the individual isolation of being always wronged, but never willing to approach the light ourselves.
All my life I have seen the effects of guilt, and the damage it causes people. I too have allowed myself to be party to this, for no other reason than not knowing any better before I knew better, and even then, for acting out of spite and blaming it on force of habit even though I knew better later on in my life. It is funny the things we excuse as tendency, knowing full well that being on the receiving end is not pleasant, and more importantly, that nothing positive results from it. Things I’ve seen and been a part of are, and before you start thinking of huge, criminal offences that are prosecutable by law, things of the nature of, letting my bad mood cause me to overreact to a situation, and not being willing to apologize thereafter because of the sting to the ego. Or, attempting tough love, but being unnecessarily cold and cruel in its implementation, so much so that when someone points it out to you, you let your frustration that you got it wrong in the first place, coupled with the fact that the overall aim of the exercise failed badly enough to warrant an external comment at all, and then you can’t apologize or even attempt reconciliation. Too much guilt is not dealt with directly, with most of the causes for everyday guilt being swept under the rug, or excused away as how things have always been done, or any other excuse about status quo being unchangeable, either at a given moment, or generally so.
For me, the antidote seems to be honesty. There are many things I have done in my life, or even thought perhaps, that I should not have, not in any detrimental way to a person, situation or thing, but in general, the kinds of crazy thoughts that flit in and out of consciousness as our brains process stimuli and experiences that come flying at it from every direction. It is not easy being honest, even as imagined in any altruistic sense, mostly because it comes closer to guaranteeing detriment at the hands of those who choose to not be so. To be sure, absolute honesty is a fallacy, and to be living in this manner is tantamount to quelling one’s survival instinct through intense practice of meditation, and the acceptance that we are in no way or form, owners of anything, including our bodies, and our spirits, which must one day return to the ultimate, cosmic soul. For the average human being, such enlightenment is too far outside of the realm of the achievable, but even in the case of this classification of individuals, those who live by the ideal of honesty usually end up having tough lives, that seem to require more detailed explanation about why they cannot just do what everyone else is doing, and enjoy themselves a bit more. It is a sacrifice that well and truly may not be worth it. But, it is a response to something, certainly something larger than the self, or the community, or even the planet itself. It is recognition of the fact that understanding and acceptance of our actions, whatever the intended outcome, is key to living a conscious life, which in and of itself offers you nothing to look forward to, until you are able to find it for yourself. Anything other than this is just cause for following imperfect paths, trod on for generations, and resulting in the same repeated pain and misery. This is what I have come to understand, and now that I am accepting it more in my life, I see the need to live differently than I have thus far. No, I am not going to strip down to a loincloth and go off screaming into the jungle, swinging from vine to vine. I am not even going to change my name or appearance to indicate this shift. It is just going to be a case of exploring life with a newly endowed vision. At least that is what I am going to call it.
At the end of it all, the guilt I was forced to experience taught me, and seriously urged me to find a better way to exist. I have attempted to garner support for this, particularly when it comes to indicating to the people I see torturing themselves, that there is another way to be. But, I have found few takers since that time, and I am myself further refining my knowledge of and thereafter implementing the same in practice in my life, one step at a time. And yes, it is very slow going, and can be extremely frustrating at times. But this too is part of the learning, I believe. And so, while guilt is certainly a tool that is wielded with varying degrees of expertise by those who care to do so, I have come to a different realization because of it, and am much gladder for it. Is there an end to guilt? Only if we want there to be, seems to be what I have come up with, thus far…