Wednesday, November 18, 2009

If You Feel Guilty You Are

In LaConner you're a local if you were born here, or if you went to high school here, or if you no longer give a shit whether anybody thinks you're a local.

This is where I used to live, but I am moving into town:

Room to rent in a lovely old farmhouse on Fir Island. $400 includes utilities. Spacious room with a view to die for facing east across the fields to Mt. Baker. Nice quiet house, good people. Available December 9. Call Patty Detzer 360-445-6281.

This is from Old Frog Hospital -- the kind of thing that will be included in the book I am writing:

If You Feel Guilty You Are

Why do people say “I feel guilty”? Why don’t they say “I am guilty”? If you feel guilty because you are guilty, that means you are doing something you shouldn’t do, and you should stop doing it. If you feel guilty, but you are not guilty, then you need to visit the Head Doctor, or take some Clarification Pills, because you cannot actually feel guilty unless you are guilty.

Do you feel guilty because of what somebody else did? Then you have your emotions on backward. You might feel sad because of what somebody else did, or disappointed, or angry, but you cannot actually feel guilty about what somebody else did.

Ah, but what about collective responsibility? There is a group, a social unit, that you identify with, that you belong to, and this group has done something wrong. Now this is the right way to talk – we say, “We are guilty,” not “We feel guilty,” certainly not “I feel guilty.” To say that “I feel guilty” because of what the group has done is to give yourself an unwarranted importance.

But, in most instances, people say “I feel guilty” because they don’t actually want to take any responsibility – it’s a clever way to avoid saying “I am guilty.” It’s a clever way to avoid making a judgment – either you are guilty or you are not, being fully contextual and using your very own standards, not someone else’s, not what you were taught, but what you actually know – Did you or did you not do this thing? And was doing this thing right or wrong?

Come, come, it’s not that hard. We have the well-known grey area of course. Does everything fall into the grey area? Actually, not.

So let’s say, having gone through this exercise, you reach the conclusion of “I am not guilty” and “I didn’t actually do anything wrong.” Then it’s not your fault – this harm. Either it was not a harm, or else someone else did it.

But if you reach the conclusion of “I am guilty” then you better stop doing it. That is the point of the exercise – to stop doing it. Making amends and apologizing does not serve much purpose, but to reach a decision and then to change behavior, that is character development.

Guilt is not a feeling, it is a state or condition. Feelings, famously, just are, and we accept them–we do nothing. Guilt is the result of a decision or judgment, by ourselves or by others, which points to an imperative--to do something about it.

I could edit this essay, written in 2004, and stop it right here, because the point is well-made, in a general sense. But I wanted to put this exposition on guilt in a context, so I went on to describe this meeting I attended in the town of Langley on Whidbey Island.

I recently attended a meeting of the Peace & Reconciliation Network in the town of Langley on Whidbey Island, at Neil’s Clover Patch Café. The invitation said:

“The Whidbey Peace and Reconciliation Network invites you to a relaxing evening of conversation with your neighbors. We believe that community spirit can be nurtured through good conversation – and great pie and coffee! All points of view are most welcome as we discuss the question: Given the world situation, what do you regard as beautiful and worth preserving on Whidbey Island and, what are you willing to do to preserve it? We will use a process called the Conversation Café…”
I especially like the Conversation Café format of small group (6-8 people) discussion, because I feel awkward speaking to larger groups, and I get very bored. With the smaller group, I get more chances to talk, and because I know I will get a chance to talk I am more likely to listen. The facilitator urged us to listen to each other and not rehearse our own speech – well taken.

Langley is a small town on south Whidbey Island – even cuter than LaConner. Lots of arts & crafts, many long-distance commuters to Seattle via the ferry at Mukilteo – no farmers, no Indians, no Hispanics – it is a liberal town, Democratic.

And I didn’t go there to make fun of these people, or to characterize them – I drove
there, and it takes more than one hour, to join with them and to see if they finally got their act together and their heads on straight. But I was disappointed – they still feel guilty.

But guilty of what? A competent group with mastery of social and technical skills that assures a high standard of living, yet in the context of this group discussion they expressed doubt, uncertainty, and insecurity. George Bush runs they country and they do not. Bush spearheaded the war on Iraq, which they opposed. They’ve lost money in the stock market, and they have lost environmental battles with developers on Whidbey Island.

Given the question about preserving the beauty of Whidbey Island, they felt unworthy even to live there. They said that right-wing fundamentalism was the bane of America. Yet they provided the opposite and contrary attitude of excessive doubt, confusion and inaction – stalling, feeling guilty, avoiding decision.

In conclusion ( a formulation rarely used in Frog Hospital ), the prime directive is “Do the Right Thing,” citing the Spike Lee version of that phrase.

This essay is good, but it needs a better ending. I’ll work on that.

A rare Frog Hospital poem follows, from July 2003:


Mercy for Slobodan Milosovic,

Mercy for War Criminals,

Mercy for Cop Killers,

Mercy for Drunk Drivers and Deadbeat Dads,

Mercy for Wife Beaters,

Mercy for Tyrants and Manipulators,

Mercy for Drug Addicts and Winos.

Well, it’s easy to be merciful to people you like.

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