Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Goblin of Guilt

Danielle Bean is having a great discussion about guilt, specifically mother guilt, with a reader; she invited all to participate, and many people have had some interesting things to say.

Lots of people have pointed out that this tends to boil down to semantics. If by "guilt" you mean "the good promptings of one's conscience that illuminate that which is bad in your life and encourage you to seek the good," then guilt is something worth having. Unfortunately, I think the word "guilt" has already begun the process of devolving from this worthy meaning, and tends at the present time to refer more to one's illogical and irrational feelings of dread, shame, or failure, prompted by one's tendencies to compare oneself with others, with fictional people, with magazine advertisements, with weight loss commercials, and so on.

A well-formed conscience is worth having, and it's good to be sensitive to your conscience, and to make changes in your life based on what it tells you about yourself.

But guilt, especially mother's guilt, is more a hindrance than a help. It fills you with conflicting and paralyzing messages; it causes you to see things as twisted and hideous which are really good and beautiful; it deters you from action, while punishing you for not acting.

It is, in fact, a Goblin.

This Goblin may be the demented offspring of the Siren of Self-Doubt. As I said when discussing the Siren, she comes for no reason; but the Goblin comes lurking around the corners of actual points of dissatisfaction, whether prompted initially by our conscience, or prompted by that conversation we had with the woman who's homeschooling a dozen or so children, whose house is immaculate and whose children called us "Ma'am" the whole time we were there.

Our conscience moves us to helpful action. The Goblin's not so altruistic. He peeps around from behind us as we sit on the accomplished lady's spotless sofa, and points a gnarled finger at one of our own children, who is doing something unspeakable involving his index finger and his left nostril.

When we look away in horror, hoping the lady won't notice, we can't help but see how daintily one of her children is using--no, not a tissue--an actual pocket handkerchief!

We return to our own home, but we don't realize that the Goblin has come along for the ride.

He skips into the house in front of us, and all of a sudden the place dearest to us in the world looks a bit smaller and shabbier than we remember it. This isn't the helpful conscience reminding us to clear away some of the clutter; we already did that. This is the Goblin, raising wild thoughts of carpet replacement along with a large dose of guilt that we've let the carpets get so dirty (never mind that this ridiculously light-colored carpet was chosen by the builder, not us, and that many of the stains occurred when the children were much littler than they are now.)

We sigh, and begin preparing a meal for our children, only to have them remind us in gentle tones that they hate the particular vegetable (or sauce, or meat, or dish in general, etc.) that we're preparing. Guilt assails us again. Should we be forcing them to eat foods they hate? Aren't we being too accommodating of their preferences? But if we do force them--more guilt! Future eating disorders! Damaged self-worth! The Goblin rubs his hands together in unholy glee.

Perhaps there's an after-dinner struggle with homework (they should be playing outside! They need exercise! No, they need to understand the principle parts of speech!). Soon it's time to get ready for bed--and by this time the Goblin is whirling around madly, just seeing how much more guilt he can scatter before the day ends.

We should say more bedtime prayers! We should punish the children if they giggle during them! We should be kneeling, all of us, preferably on those wooden kneelers the religious catalog had! No, it's more penitential to kneel on the floor! We should be putting the children to bed half an hour earlier than we do! We should let them read in bed! No, we shouldn't! We've been letting them take flashlights to bed--what kind of parents are we????

The guilt lingers long after the children are asleep.

There's only one way to deal with a Goblin like this--and that's to see right through him.

To do that, we have to know his agenda. What he really wants is for us to be unhappy, particularly in our vocations. He wants us to see some impossible, unattainable standard of perfection, one that changes constantly and therefore can never be achieved--and then to measure ourselves against it, all day, every day. He wants us to fear that the tiny decisions we make ("Yes, you can have a cookie; no, you can't play outside in the rain,") will somehow warp our children's souls and make them as twisted and ugly as he is. He wants to steal every cheerful moment, every happy hug or joyous laugh, and taint them all with the dread that We Are Doing Everything All Wrong.

I find St. Monica particularly useful when I'm confronted with the Goblin of Guilt. No one would say she wasn't a good mother--but her son went out and lived a pagan and licentious life, for a long time. The key is, St. Monica didn't let the Goblin stop her from going right on and continuing to be a good mother, on her knees, with tearful prayers and a childlike trust in the God Who could save her son, if He chose. And He did, and St. Augustine rejoices with her on a daily basis.

The Goblin of Guilt has no power over us.

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