On Guilt

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Words by Ellen Mcqueen

“You know, Ellen, we have our own lives to live.”

I wouldn’t be home for Christmas. I allowed the decision of whether or not to be home for Christmas morph into some sort of Sophie’s choice that demanded an absurd amount of mental energy and managed to wiggle to the top of what otherwise could’ve been a very real to-do list.

I refused to admit that the problem was not whether or not to be home for Christmas but actually the fact that I’d subconsciously already decided not to be, and with the naïveté of a freshman assuming Mother would call every night before she could possibly get to sleep, I still existed at twenty-six years old with the belief of being the first and foremost priority in both my parents’ lives.

I still considered, after an undergrad degree, six apartments, and eight years since moving out of the house, my decisions and movements to be carefully monitored and assessed by an anxious and loving mother and father.

And it was the guilt of depriving them of my presence, of choosing to be elsewhere for Christmas, which wreaked havoc on my mind for the three days leading to a phone call with Mother.  

“You know, Ellen, we have our own lives to live.”

The guilt, as usual, was unnecessary.

The guilt, it seemed, had been quite narcissistic. 

A certain amount of guilt can be a tool, an important one, to adhere to the basic moral expectancies of society, to ensure we’re not hurting the ones we love, to stay true to one’s own ethics. But, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, once one has found a way to manipulate the phrase “I’m sorry” into every other sentence, it’s time to face the fact that there may not always be something to be “I’m sorry” for.

Joan Didion writes in her essay On Self-Respect “We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.” It feels good to say, “I’m sorry.” We think it makes us good, we think we’re pleasing our assumed prosecutor. Speculating, foolishly, greedily, that this other person is clinging to our every endeavour, thought, and judgment. That everyone else is just waiting in anticipation for the moment to forgive.

Hint: they’re not.

We’re guilty for not doing the dishes. For not spending enough times with the kids. For not exercising. For drinking the wine. For going out. For not going out. For spending weekends in bed. For spending weekends away. For missing the phone call. For misspelling the name. For losing the keys. For forgetting the keys. For forgetting to make the reservation. For forgetting you’d already made the reservation. For being too busy or too tired or too overwhelmed. 

Last week a student said to me, “I forgot my yoga mat,” and my immediate reaction to this was, “oh I’m so sorry.”

It’s like the boy who cried wolf.

Because there will be, of course, things to actually be remorseful for. But when we’re apologising for our every move, it’s not always a matter of culpability. It can be a matter of addiction to the phrase, a self-inflicted perpetual state of guilt that we train ourselves to endure. And the phrase wears itself out, and when there’s going to actually be something to be “I’m sorry” for, there may be no protection from the wolf. 

Sometimes we fear what would happen if the guilt wasn’t there. What if I simply wasn’t sorry? What if my moral compass goes out of whack and I find myself alone in the world on the freeway to damnation? Because this is how drastic it becomes. One is not simply sorry for not doing the dishes; one tortures oneself for days on the chopping block of whoever the Higher Power may be. Roommate comes home to a full sink and you’re in a state of near panic, “I’m sorry, I forgot, I’m the worst, excuse, excuse.” Roommate often couldn’t care less. 

And here is the remedy: courage. Sometimes it takes more courage to not say sorry. To stand up for yourself. To break the pattern of the same mistakes. To recognise that in fact you are not the star of everyone else’s production, and maybe sometimes what you’d believed to be such a big deal is actually a figment of your imagination. The courage to trust in your moral compass, to learn for yourself when it is actually your fault and when to fight for your right. The courage to not do things to be “I’m sorry” for. The courage to be yourself.  

Again, I’m not advocating for the absence of guilt. Just the checking of it. The reminder that sometimes courage, or perhaps, as Didion would suggest, self-respect, is the more suitable, albeit more challenging, option. An apology should be a heartfelt and powerful thing. Our rapid-paced, technologically advanced culture advocates for speedy and efficient interactions, and has caused us to overuse phrases or words that should otherwise be scrupulously thought through, intended whole-heartedly.

I love you.

I’ll be there. 

I promise. 

What I’m trying to provide is the reminder that there’s no reason to drown in guilt, no one is going to give you a gold star every time you confess. Don’t play around with the phrase, don’t victimise yourself into a role in which you’re always the perpetrator. Be brave. Be strong.

Don’t be sorry.      

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Ellen is an American writer and yoga instructor currently living in Paris. In 2015 she graduated from New York University with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, and since has had the opportunity to pursue her passion for traveling. She hopes to continue teaching yoga to the local and ex-pat community of Paris, and you can stay updated on her class schedule at mcqueenyoga.com or follow her on Instagram @mcqueenyoga.

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