I am not a prick. I know this because I tell myself about five times a day. However, the following anecdote may lead you to believe otherwise.
I was on my way somewhere and bumped into a guy I vaguely know the other day. I asked how he was and he said, “Not good… I’m getting divorced.” We were outside a comedy club. “That’s why I’ve been coming to the comedy club a lot lately.”
Any normal person would react with the appropriate amount of compassion and sympathy. Not me. I was awkward and didn’t know what to say, so I tried to make a joke. “The divorce not doing it for you, then, comedy-wise?”
I looked back at his heartbroken face and immediately felt a wave of guilt sweep over me, which I acknowledged for a moment before mumbling something about being sorry for his troubles and taking off.
What a prick.
The guilt stayed with me all weekend. At night when I tried to sleep, it was there. It has been a long time since I’ve felt guilt as strongly as this and it took me back to when I was a child and felt it often. It caused me to think about why we even feel guilt in the first place.
So why do we feel guilty? Many psychologists believe that guilt exists as a mechanism to help us improve our social standing in a group, forcing us to try to patch things up when we have done something wrong. The guilt will still exist until we take some action to remedy the situation.
I remember that as a child, I had a very active guilty conscience and would often feel terrible for days about pretty small things. When I was about seven, I had a boomerang (how Australian am I?) which I snapped in half one day. I then went and hid the evidence and worried for weeks about what would happen if someone ever found out. Finally, unable to sleep, I got out of bed one night and edged down towards where Mum and Dad were chatting. I told them I had something to tell them. Deep breath. “I broke my boomerang – snapped it in half.” Mum and Dad looked at me for a moment before Dad said, “Well, it won’t be coming back then, will it?” Brilliant! I wasn’t in trouble. And Dad made a funny joke. What a great way to deal with tension, thought I.
I realise that these aren’t the biggest things in the world to feel guilty about. I feel a bit like the virgin fundamentalist Christian teenager in a recent episode of ‘This American Life’ who joined a support group for sex addicts because he couldn’t stop looking down women’s blouses in the freezer section of the supermarket. The sin was small but the shame was real.
It wasn’t just when I had made a mistake that I felt guilty. If someone was giving me the cold shoulder, I would feel guilty and do whatever it took to make it up to them, regardless of whether I was in the wrong or not. I needed to make it right so that things could be calm and nice again – that was the number one priority in life. So, I became someone who goes out of their way to please others. Ugh. And now I do stand-up comedy. Ugh. Ugh.
It didn’t help that I believed that God was watching my every move. Not only that, he could read my thoughts, and thinking something bad was as bad as doing it. Oh, jeepers. Keep your thoughts nice. Be nice to everyone. Don’t say or even think anything negative because if you’re not a good person, you’re going to spend eternity burning in Hell. No biggie. Oh, and you know all your friends? The ones who aren’t Christians (all of them)? They’re going to Hell, too.
Luckily for me, I don’t believe this anymore. I should probably feel guilty about that.
I emailed the divorcee and apologised for what I had said. He graciously said not to worry about it and I was absolved of my guilt. Brilliant! I was no longer a bad person!… Hang on. Did I apologise because I did the wrong thing or because I wanted him to let me off the hook? He was the only person who could make that feeling go away. Was my apology considerate or selfish?
I don’t know. Probably a bit of both. For now, though, that horrible feeling is gone and all is well with the world. Now, if I can just do the right thing in every situation all the time, I won’t have anything to worry about.
I’d better stay away from the freezer section at Park’n’Shop.