A week or so ago, I asked you to leave a comment about one thing you feel guilty about — an ecoconfession — to enter a surprise giveaway. The prize is a copy of Franke James’s illustrated book, Bothered by My Green Conscience: How an SUV-driving, imported-strawberry-eating urban dweller can go green.
But I asked the question about guilt for another reason. A while back, reading through ancient posts from a long-ago blog I used to keep, I came across a piece I wrote called, simply, “Guilt.” It’s heavy duty. It was written during a pretty bleak time in my life, a time long before plastic-free living and eco-activism. A time when I didn’t know where I was going and couldn’t manage to do much to figure it out.
Here are a few excerpts. You can read the entire post here, but be warned that it’s not pretty and some bits might even make you angry.
I’m depressed. Me and half the country. But I work only 3 days a week and make enough money to enjoy the remaining 4 days of free time. So how can I be depressed? Because, like in that song that was all over the radio a few months ago, “I’m a hazard to myself.” I don’t know what to do when I’m alone. I think, what do most people do? Shop? Watch TV? Play games? Kill time. Yeah, I kill a lot of time. And pay the price in big-time guilt. I’m loaded with it these days.
In modest amounts, guilt can be a useful substance. You can trade it for things you’d ordinarily have to pass up. A slice of chocolate cake, for example, or an hour of watching American Idol on TV. Sleeping late. Playing computer games. These things are generally affordable: I seem to be able to manage the level of guilt they require without overextending myself, going into debt.
But guilt, like coins, is heavy. You can’t swim across a river with thousands of dollars of coins in your pockets. You might have used them to buy a boat, but it’s too late if you’re already drowning. Similarly, guilt can build up to levels that are no longer useful. At that point, the pressure from guilt weighing upon guilt begins to convert it into a different substance altogether: depression.
When you’re depressed, you no longer care about the things that earlier might have been worth a little guilt. Food doesn’t taste good. Most forms of entertainment aren’t fun anymore. And the idea of doing something meaningful is ludicrous because suddenly you realize that NOTHING matters. The world wouldn’t change much without you in it.
So here I am: guilty and depressed, wanting desperately for something to matter and knowing that ultimately nothing does. What do I do?
Guilt, while maligned by most psychotherapists these days, is uniquely human and therefore, probably a quality that has contributed to our evolution as a species. The things we avoid out of guilt are generally the things that would do us in. But a little guilt goes a long way. If I ever manage to squeeze out from under the weight of all this depression, I’ve got to find a way to transform the remaining guilt, which I believe (tonight anyway) is inevitable, into something if not meaningful, at least a little useful.
To be continued. I hope.
I spent a lot of time back then feeling useless and guilty, feeling like I was wasting my life and not knowing what to do instead. What I wonder now is whether that guilt I felt then pushed me towards my work now as an environmental activist blogger or if I would have gotten here faster without all that wallowing and depression and self-flagellation. There’s no way to know for sure.
In her book, author and artist Franke James describes waking up to her own environmental impact and how her guilty conscience led her to some pretty huge life changes. She and her husband go car-free and turn their driveway into a park: the opposite of paving paradise. But was it really guilt that drove her? Or something else?
What do you think about the role of guilt and conscience in our lives? I’ve insisted on this blog that guilt is unnecessary and in fact detrimental to our goals because it’s all about blame rather than solutions. It creates the illusion that we are separate from the rest of the world, wrong, at fault. The feelings can subdue us into inaction. But can guilt also catalyze rather than paralyze? Can a little of it be just the spark some of us need to get off our duffs and do something meaningful?
Franke cites the example of how shame has been used to get people to scoop up after their pets. She asks, “If people can be convinced to pick up dog shit, who knows what social change is possible?”
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Oh, and by the way, the winner of the book is peaJayFish. Congratulations.
Disclosure: If you use the Barnes & Noble link in this post to buy Bothered by my Green Conscience, My Plastic-free Life earns a small commission. But try to borrow, find it used, or buy it locally from an independent book seller before going the online route. For an explanation, read my full advertising/review policy here.