Once upon a generation or so ago, there were people, mostly women, who specialized in guilt. Since I would feel too guilty singling out any age group or ethnicity, let me just say that some women were born to it.
My mother, rest her soul, was so deft in jabbing the guilt-inducing saber that you hardly felt it. “It’s been a long, quiet day here,” she would say when I called her in Florida. No demand, no actual complaint and no direct request of me. But I knew that she wanted me to call more often, and I realized that the calls were the highlight in her too-long, too-quiet life.
It was only when I heard other mothers chat with their grown children that I realized there was another way to interact. I actually heard of one mother (and the story may be apocryphal) who told her daughter not to visit one weekend because she was pretty booked up with an outing to the mall and two card games.
My exposure to parental guilt came early and lasted — well, it lives on even though my parents do not.
I realize that guilt takes on various guises, and modern life offers many new opportunities to feel guilty if one is so inclined, and apparently I am. I can’t even eat a damn pint of Haagen Dazs vanilla chocolate chip without getting the guilts. This has nothing to do with my mother, and everything to do with the popular messaging that sugar and fat are toxic. I have to swallow my guilt with every spoonful.
Today’s New York Times has a story claiming that what we eat affects climate change. So now my ordinary diet will cause high tides and wild fires. Eat a burger and trigger a tsunami.
If I don’t exercise as much as all the studies tell me I must, major guilt ensues. Not necessarily enough to propel me off the couch, but enough to suck the joy out of an afternoon of online Scrabble. Lately, the studies say I can work out for just seven minutes a day and stay healthy. But it’s astounding how difficult it is to find seven minutes, all in a row. Especially for squat thrusts.
Of course, ice cream isn’t the only guilt-inducing food. The more you know, the fewer foods you can eat with a clear conscience. I happen to like kale, which is a plus-3 on the guilt-ometer, but I also love pulled pork, which is a minus-5. Apples are a wonderful treat and at least a plus-2, and so are all the root vegetables I enjoy, but my nightly treat of dark chocolate with nuts, caramel and sea salt gives me an overall deficit for the day.
If I can push past the food and exercise issues, I run into a guilt that didn’t even exist when I was a child. The amount of time I spend on screens (see last week’s column) is too much, and I’m regularly reminded of just how much by a new app on my iPhone that tracks my screen time. I don’t even know how I got this app, but it’s there, like my conscience, whispering, “Do something more productive.”
Oh yeah, and I feel guilty when I don’t call my friends often enough. Emails and texts are communication, but you just get the words of the conversation, without the flavor and the nuance. Everyone should get a call on his or her birthday. Birthday-forgetting-guilt stings so bad!
Once you’re on the guilt train, there’s no end to the trips you can take. I see an ad for a charity and I make a conscious decision whether or not to contribute, but I always feel guilty about the radio stations and soccer teams and botanical gardens and GoFundMe appeals I can’t help out.
Speaking of gardens, I feel guilty when I neglect mine. Coming and going, in and out of the house, I spy a dried-out box of petunias and I hear them crying, “Water me!” In a few weeks I’ll start hearing my tomato plants begging for food and a more stable existence, secured to wooden stakes. Weird, huh?
Of course, when dogs go to college, they major in guilt. It’s all in the eyes, and when they find yours and lock in, you belong to them. Whatever my Lillybee wishes — a treat, a walk, licking out the Haagen Dazs container — I give in, because the alternative, dog-induced guilt, is too much to bear.
Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.