Saturday, April 11, 2009


We ate guilt with our Catholic school lunches. I assumed it was one of the ingredients in the lentil stew or the tomato-soup-tasting bowl of spaghetti. Our goodness and badness was part of the curriculum and the gates of Hell beckoned to the side of the blackboard in every classroom.
Anything that we could possibly imagine doing in those tender years had such huge consequences attached to them, that to step over that line, even knowingly, made one’s spirit quiver as if the devil himself had entered our presence.
At home, the guilt trips were rampant, especially on a psychological level. If I spoke to my grandmother of how my mother really felt about something, I carried the guilt of my mother finding out, the fear of how she would deal with me, and the guilt of having done something that she wouldn’t like, quite innocently sometimes. It just came out.
As a young teenager, even though I attended public high school, the words of the Mother Superior as I had left that school to move to N.J., to my mother on my last day , remained in the recesses of my brain.
“She’ll wind up in the Home of the Good Shepherd!”
So every boy I kissed, every sexual act I engaged in during those exploratory years, had guilt peering over my shoulder and assessing how much I would pay for that choice. In Catholic school, I had been taught that the greater the guilt, the larger the punishment, because it implied that I knew what I was doing yet did it anyway.
But the judgments of the choices I made were theirs. I didn’t always agree. Some of the things just felt natural or innocent or the next organic step.
I wasn’t brazen, overt or deliberate. I didn’t just do things and sit back and watch the repercussions. I was engaged with life and sometimes didn’t think things through. Those traits would follow me for most of my life, yet somewhere along that path, I began to part ways with guilt. I began to see that, as I felt better about myself and knew I was a good person, making the best choices I could in the moment, there was no reason to carry guilt with me.
Yet to this day, after raising kids and getting up and out for a job by eight in the morning, when I have mornings with a client around noon, and I have morning time to write or walk or work on a project, guilt begins to niggle itself into my thoughts. Isn’t there something I should be doing? Is it okay to have hours of free time? Will my bills not get paid because I’m using this time to play instead of work, etc., etc. I keep breathing and letting go and speak gently to that part that still wonders about guilt’s purpose. I tell it that it’s okay to have free time. It’s okay to enjoy my life and not feel bad about having a good time, doing things that give me a sense of creativity. The bills will get paid and they do.

Note: The guilt that I see some Catholic women carry, those taught by nuns and where the beliefs are reinforced at home, is a paralyzing load. They second guess themselves and the choices they have made. They also go out of their way to not make waves, apologize, take blame when it’s not theirs, and cripple themselves by not making expansive decisions when the opportunities arise. Their sense of unworthiness shouts at them. Their mea culpas drown out their authentic voices and keep them small, I guess so the devil won’t find them!

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