Who or what sets the bar for quintessential guilt? The Catholics? The Jews? The debate has raged for decades, perhaps millennia. Other essayists, writers, bloggers and ethicists have written about it, Woody Allen has joked about it in many films; Jewish comedians working the Borscht Belt have too. And so, I come forward to offer my own take on the matter.
Sometimes the roots of guilt are subtle and sometimes they are as apparent as a chainsaw firing up. The bringers and tutors of guilt can be Jewish mothers, rabbis, priests, nuns, televangelists and Catholic mothers. You can feel guilt from eating non-kosher food if you are Jewish. In the “old days” Catholics could feel guilty for eating meat on Friday. Years later, when the meatless Friday restriction was abolished, my mother wanted to know “What about all those Catholics who went to hell for eating meat? What will happen to them?” Well, she was kidding, but only barely. In those days, these were issues to be taken seriously. You could eat vegetable soup on Friday and feel righteous, only to find that the soup had a beef stock as its base when you read the soup can ingredients after the fact. Oops, guilt. If you broke your dietary fast prior to taking Communion (fasting from midnight was required), oops, guilt. Sometimes it was exasperating to go to confession on a Saturday afternoon, be absolved, then have a date Saturday night where you might commit one of those impure sins of the flesh, and by the time of Sunday mass be concerned that you were not in “a state of grace” and therefore have scruples over receiving “the body and blood of Our Lord.” Oops, guilt.
But what is more concerning is the subtle effect these “guilt trips” (for want of a better term) have on our subconscious. I have found articles maintaining that Catholic Guilt Syndrome is a real, bona fide mental condition. For some, it is normal to arrive at adulthood and be able to shake off these shackles of guilt and realize that you have been overly scrupulous, that some of the things you agonized over were trivial. And so, hopefully, you let them go. Yet others simply cannot, because the guilt has seeped below the surface and become a part of who they are. Like toxic material (toxic metals, industrial waste, pesticides, hormones, etc.) sinking into the soil and then over time into the ground water, psychic guilt pervades your thinking, even your unconscious dreaming. You feel unworthy to have a good opinion about yourself, because after all, isn’t that a sin of pride, being too puffed up? You apologize for living. You become self-effacing, unable to hear or receive compliments, unable to use your gifts and talents as a worthwhile whole being. You don’t pursue lofty goals for fear of becoming too proud. Instead, you content yourself doing little things – gardening, being a good housekeeper, being a good cook. I think women are more prone to this than men.
In the Catholic experience, “near occasions of sin” were to be avoided as much as the sin itself. A near occasion of sin was an event, a situation or a circumstance that, while not a sin in and of itself, could lead you in that direction, to wit in the direction of moral turpitude. Near occasions of sin became near occasions of guilt. Near occasions of sin should be avoided; the resulting guilt, not so much. Near occasions of sin included Gidget and beach blanket movies, wearing provocative clothing, hanging out with non-Catholics, attending non-Catholic church services, reading impure books (like Peyton Place), watching the wrong types of television programs, riding with a boy on the back of a motorcycle, slow dancing too close or too slowly, and gyrational hip movement while dancing (the bump and grind and shake variety a la Elvis Presley).
I once asked my mother about specific situations trying to get a handle on how this worked. I inquired about men or women doing social things with someone other than their own spouse. I gave an example: suppose you and Mr. Jones went to a meeting together or carpooled. That wouldn’t be wrong, would it?” My mother explained this might not be a good idea. And I asked why. I received a one word answer, delivered somberly: “Propinquity!” This is pretty heavy ethical parsing for a young adolescent. I had to look the word up in the dictionary, and then extrapolate the meaning to fit the situation. Guilt, propinquity, extrapolation, ethics – at twelve and thirteen! I deduced, slowly, that nearness to a tempting circumstance might cause you to fall into the murky abyss of transgressions that only the martyred saints could have withstood. Alas, many years later when I became “somewhat involved” with a married man in a carpool situation did I realize that mother was right. Those near occasions of sin can creep up like stealth weapons and you can become an ethical statistical loser before you can even say “human frailty.” Oops, guilt.
Nuns admonished young adolescents about the temptations of the flesh that could arise with the onset of puberty. They lectured the girls to make sure their mothers took them shopping for “little brassieres” at le moment critical, lest failure to do so lead young boys astray. I had no idea what they were talking about, but listened dutifully. Likewise we were warned about tight pullover sweaters and straight skirts (pencil skirts or hobble skirts). I remember a swim party once in eighth grade at the home of a classmate. Some of the nuns were invited and they sat around in patio chairs and smiled. You can bet we were warned by our parents not to wear two piece bathing suits. Talk about near occasions of sin. Ouch! The devout followers of Islam go further. They cover up the female flesh utterly and completely. I remember an amusing incident once in Regent’s Park in London. I had traveled there on vacation with a friend and we were strolling in the park, and there was an extended family of Muslims enjoying a picnic. There were several couples, probably aunts, uncles, in-laws, cousins, multiple generations, etc. The men were wearing casual western attire and the women were all wearing burqas, of the type that completely concealed their faces, with only a small rectangular slit for the eyes to see out. And someone decided it would be nice to take a group photo. So they all huddled together in a tight cluster, the women next to their men, and someone snapped off a few pix. My friend and I wondered what they might think or say later, viewing the snapshots. My, wasn’t Fatima looking well that day? And Ajwa, look how she is smiling. See the crinkles at the corners of her eyes. Well, we didn’t quite get it. But then, to dress otherwise before a camera might have been a near occasion of guilt. Yes, I think it pervades all cultures.
Then there is the guilt about not keeping holy the Sabbath. Technically, in the Catholic tradition, this means not cooking or cleaning on Sunday (certainly okay by me), or doing anything else particularly laborious. One time my uncle, Father Timothy, was visiting and noted we were watering the lawn on Sunday and he commented on this. Frankly, I wondered if perhaps he was kidding. Watering the lawn was a sin? Who knew? After all, we lived in a desert. If we didn’t water the lawn daily in the summer it would turn brown and crunchy and die. But after that visit, my mother made sure to water the lawn in extra measure late on Saturdays, so as not to need to water it on Sunday if at all possible. If there is a heaven, and St. Peter is keeping the log of sins and transgressions (might he have switched to an Excel spreadsheet or an Access database by now? Or might this be automated now with the aid of celestial spy cameras?), do you think he is likely to comment on how many times you watered the lawn on a Sunday, compared to cheating on a spouse, misdemeanor manslaughter, gambling addiction, running an escort service or dealing drugs? It that is the worst thing you ever did and you feel guilty about it, get some help. There is still time to get over yourself and have a few years left to enjoy having a real life. I’d put malicious gossiping much higher on the sin scale than watering the lawn on Sunday. Similarly, orthodox Jews won’t use automated transport on the Sabbath, or ride in elevators or even push those Walk buttons on corners to change the light. They won’t flip electric light switches on or off. Same basic idea.
Somewhere along the road to ethical behavior, I learned that “circumstances alter cases,” which is to say that there are many shades of gray in most situations. You can’t just categorically call something a sin without examining all the particulars surrounding the situation, the state of mind of the person, intent, deliberateness, knowledge of consequences, etc. Which also means you can, on occasion, with the hair-splitting finesse and skill of a Jesuit (not unlike the skills of attorneys delivering closing arguments to a jury), convince yourself that some gray behavior is, in fact, just being human and not a sin. This is an exceedingly useful argument, but not easy to learn, just like skillful political debating (remember Bill Clinton testifying and quibbling over “it depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is”?). But, if you read articles in “America” magazine regularly, you will start to understand some of the nuances. If you major in philosophy, you will get a taste of it.
If you delve into the finer points of guilt, you learn that theologians and ethicists recognize two types: useful guilt that spurs one in the direction of better behavior, acts as a stepping stone toward a better, more fully developed sense of self and resulting behavior. That would be like those twinges that motivate us to do community service and social justice work, and support worthy causes, and treat those around us in our daily lives with respect and dignity. The un-useful or bad guilt leads merely to beating up one’s self and is not productive. It is this un-useful guilt that is most often the fodder for comedians and sitcom scripts. It damages self-esteem and prevents your self-image from shining. This is the kind that gets into your psyche sometimes and takes up residence. It can turn you into a neurotic bundle of niggling doubts so that you don’t know exactly how to live without second guessing a great deal of your behavior. That is the point at which it may cross over to shame – yet another essay.
So you see, if you take this sin and guilt (of the un-useful variety) to its ultimate far-reaching limit, it can become just plain silly in my humble opinion. If you have a moral compass or an ethical barometer, I don’t think it needs to be calibrated to a gnat’s eyelash to be effective. To go that far sucks all the joy out of life. If you have a working moral compass, I think you have as much responsibility to embrace joy as to avoid sin. As always, that’s my take, and only my take. You can formulate your own mode of evaluation if this is an important issue for you. I’m glad I was able to use my education in the ways of guilt for something useful, finally – writing an essay. Now that should keep me off the streets and away from many near occasions of sin, at least for a few hours.