on guilt

Yesterday I paid for a $5 drink with a $10 bill. The bartender gave me back $15 in change. So I gave the ten back.

I have been thinking recently about ‘guilt’, particularly of the “Catholic guilt” variety. I generally am annoyed when people make jokes about “Catholic guilt”, because overall I don’t find guilt to be a terrible thing. It tells us when we have done something wrong. It ensures altruistic behavior. I think people often imagine Catholic guilt as just enough guilt to feel bad about having done something, but not enough to not do it in the first place. Still, for most people I know, guilt (or the prospect of it) is what keeps us on the straight and narrow, doing the right thing for the people around us.

I will admit, sometimes I can take the idea a little too far. I had a professor once who said “I hope this generation has guilt about justice the way my generation had guilt about sex”, and I fall prey to extensive scrupulosity when issues of finances and divvying up of resources come up. In short: I feel guilty about having too much.

Many of you know the saga of the cellphone. Broken, then replaced, then I was given a hand-me-down, then charger stolen, etc. Yesterday the gift-phone started acting up, and my first thought was “this is what I deserve for using a phone that I didn’t pay for”. That is quite obviously hogwash, but I know for sure that if I had kept that $10 last night I would now be blaming any number of mishaps on some post-modern amalgam of karma and divine punishment (neither of which I believe in – consciously).

A few weeks ago I went to a wedding and shared a room with two female friends. They went up to bed about an hour before I did, so they decided to share one of the full-sized beds so that I wouldn’t wake either up them up when I came up. This meant, of course, that I had the other bed to myself. When I woke up in the morning I still had slept as if I were sharing the bed, crammed all the way over to one side with the other side barely disturbed. That is the essence of Catholic guilt, at least for me: Feeling so wrong about having more than my share that I won’t indulge in all of it, even though no one else benefits from my sacrifice and I did nothing wrong.

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