I usually don't see myself as a guilt-ridden person. However, yesterday I learned that old Catholic habits hang around in difficult-to-discern guises.
I've got a natural food store checkout clerk to thank for this valuable churchless insight.
This was my first visit carrying a Whole Foods reusable bag. My wife and I had picked several up during a trip to Portland earlier in the day (Salem doesn't have a Whole Foods Market -- or a Trader Joes, despite our fervent visualizations).
When I plunked my purchases down on the conveyor belt and started to unfold the Whole Foods bag, I found myself wanting to perform a verbal penance to atone for what felt like a LifeSource Natural Foods heresy.
"I feel sort of funny using this bag in your store, since it comes from a competitor," I told the woman behind the counter. "When we were at a Whole Foods in Portland today, I just noticed that the bag stood up better than the ones I'd been using."
She stopped ringing up my items. Looked at me. Said, "Were you Catholic?"
At first I ignored the question. I wanted to elaborate on my choice of reusable grocery bags. Then it dawned on me that the clerk had zeroed in on an interesting issue.
"Well, yes. For a while. A few years when I was a kid. I wasn't confirmed, though. Was baptized and went through first communion, but dropped out after that."
This led into a mini-discussion about guilt.
The clerk said that she had a guilt-filled background herself and was trying to break free of it. She told me that I was only the second customer she'd ever encountered who had felt the need to comment on why another store's bag was being used to carry out her store's purchases.
I left grateful that the woman had chosen, with her openness, to make what would have otherwise been an uneventful shopping trip into a learning experience.
She was right.
I do feel guilty about some things that should be absolutely, deliciously, passionately guilt-free. And it could well be that my youthful dive into the weird world of Catholicism, no matter how brief, imprinted me in unconscious ways.
For example, a first confession is a pretty impressive deal when you're eight or nine years old. The big church, the polished wood of the confession box, the hidden black-robed priest behind the screen, the questions that emanate from an unseen interrogator.
"Do you have any sins to confess?"
"No, not really" (I was so young, I didn't know how to sin)
"What about church? Have you been going to mass?"
"Not very often. Well, almost never.""
"All right. Say three Our Fathers and five Hail Mary's. And go to mass more often."
Didn't seem like a big deal at the time. I wonder, though, whether the notion of a Big Man Up There who judges our actions took more of a hold in my tender growing psyche than I've been aware of.
Driving home from the natural food store, I pondered the pros and cons of guilt. If I've hurt someone unnecessarily, seemingly it's good to feel bad about it. That way I'll be less likely to make the same mistake in the future, since feeling bad isn't pleasant.
But how often does this happen, compared to all the other pseudo-justifications for guilt?
A few hours previous I'd gone to a class where a few guys had practiced the more "martial" (and macho) side of Tai Chi, melding some of our previous hard-style training with this softer art.
We'd picked up bokkens, wooden training swords (remember them in "The Last Samurai"?). My classmate, Jeremy, and I hadn't played around with them for quite a while. Warren, our instructor, led us through some semi-forgotten exercises.
After a quick spinning move it was audibly crystal clear that Jeremy -- a large strong guy -- had disabled his opponent. Or would have, if a person had been on the receiving end of the bokken's strike rather than a wooden piece of furniture in a corner.
I looked at Jeremy, wondering what he would do. I'm inclined to apologize in such circumstances. Might have said to the dojo owner, "Man, I'm sorry. Hope I didn't break anything."
Jeremy looked at his sword. Went over to the magazine rack, which looked to be undamaged. Inspected his bokken for nicks. "Look," he said, "I hit it with the right edge."
No guilt. No reason for it. Something had happened. No harm, no foul. No apology needed.
Yet for some reason I'd taken a single freaking Whole Foods bag into another natural food store and felt the need to acknowledge my sin. What gives?
Well, guilt. Which leads me to some conclusions.
Perfection isn't possible. Most of us are more willing to forgive the failings of other people than our own. This isn't humility; it is egotistical. And often it springs from a religious source. God is perfect; so should we be.
It's the "should" that causes so many guilt trips. Commandments, rules, moral standards -- they push people toward a never-ending pursuit of perfection. Catholic guilt isn't limited to a particular denomination, but pervades every form of religiosity, Western or Eastern.
Fuck it! is a fine philosophy. In a coffee house conversation, a friend reminded me recently of a pithy guide to guilt-free living: Fuck it. Most of what we agonize over does indeed deserve to be dumped in a psychological garbage can, wrapped in those two words.
You just said the wrong thing? Fuck it. Made a horrendous professional or personal decision? Fuck it. Become aware that you haven't made much progress toward maturity or wisdom after so many years on this planet? Fuck it.
Do it or don't do it; no other choices. Much guilt springs from a have it both ways attitude. We decide to do something, then feel bad about doing it. Well, like the saying goes, either shit or get off the pot. If I pay 99 cents for a Whole Foods bag, I should use it. Otherwise, why buy it?
And if I'm going to use it, then that's it. No in-between'ies allowed. There's a cardinal rule in ballroom dancing: the man leads decisively. Better to make a wrong step than no step at all. In dancing, like life, lack of action leads nowhere. Lead or follow; take charge or surrender.
Just do something! Then, something else (which might be the opposite of what you did before).
Guilt sucks up a lot of energy. Maybe there should have been an add-on "therapy" charge on my LifeSource receipt. I felt subtly different when I woke up this morning. Not hugely, but noticeably. Recognizing my guilt proneness more clearly seemed to have plugged up some sort of energy drain.
I got out of bed with a bit more spring in my step. I wasn't looking ahead as much, like I usually do, wondering if I'd be able to check off the "to-do's" in my mind that generally illusorily attempt to organize my day even before a first cup of coffee. Today, whatever happened seemed like it'd be fine.
Even if that meant finishing a blog post at 10:30 in the evening, generally way past my blogging bedtime. It's all good, to use an over-used cliche.
And when there's no guilt diluting the good...even better. Maybe you think this post is too long, that I blabbed on too much. Well...