Some days I feel like a good person who really does deserve to be happy. I’ve made some mistakes here and there, but also have done plenty of kind acts and service. Other days I feel like the scum of the Earth, loathing in self-pity and regret. This feeling of guilt usually is tied to a higher power, having wronged God or disobeyed a rule. It is also connected to others if I’ve hurt them or to myself, who is the worst forgiver of them all.
My bi-polar attitude towards decisions and mistakes is a hard one to balance. When looking at it from a living and learning perspective it seems there is no room for guilt. For instance, we do not punish toddlers for falling while they are learning to walk. Rather, we say “uh oh!” and help them back up. Throughout college I prided myself on having maturity; I thought I knew everything. Yet each year that I pass, I am able to say that trite little phrase “If I only knew then what I know now.”
Clearly my life is a progression. Certain times I stayed stuck in a rut, unable to move forward. Other times I start running forward towards a new understanding (or maybe it’s running away from something else) and often find myself smacked down on my face. If I was really just learning and growing up so fast, is the pain I feel about mistakes simply a growing pain? Should I feel guilty about mistakes made while I’m still learning?
While this theory makes complete sense for the good days, I also have the bad days where I can’t climb out of my pit of regret. I have lied, cheated, stolen, hurt, gorged, forgotten, and coveted. Everything in the book. Do any of these past “sins” matter today? Traditionally, my high school bible teacher would have said yes. That God keeps a book of them and unless I get Jesus’ signature at the end, the punishment I’ve already experienced for each is only a fraction of my eternal damnation.
In my personal life I have developed a very different pattern of discipline. There are two options for my punishment. First I kind of believe in Karma as a dog that comes around to bite me in the ass for wrong doings. The longer I wait, the bigger the bite. The reason my check bounced is not because I didn’t have enough money in the account, it’s because I didn’t put the chips back in the right aisle at Safeway and now it’s coming back to get me.
In addition to watching my back for the Karma-dogs, I also make sure to etch each mistake deep into a stone slab (that sits somewhere between my heart and my mind…but it’s not my neck, so I’m not exactly where it is). Whether it was a developmental fumble like a toddler or a disobedience I knew better than to do, I carefully reread and review the archived list and reissue punishment. For me it’s guilt. A steady can of whoop ass for my brain. It’s guilt for stealing some candy in fifth grade. For lying to my teacher in ninth. For being close minded and insensitive in college. Or for being manipulative and self-focused and subsequently hurting my family and friends over the past couple years.
Guilt and regret are two bullies that hang out on the street corner in the neighborhood of my brain. Sometimes they work together to remind me of my weakness. Sometimes they show up unexpectedly at my doorstep. Or I stupidly ask them to come over because I am bored and my mind has wandered in reflection of the past. In this twisted discipline gang, with its little cronies waiting to beat me up, I cannot escape or keep my dignity.
Unfortunately, I too am a member of the gang – but was forced into alliance by a bit of brainwashing in my youth and a follower-type personality. I have fallen so far from the foundation of grace for myself that I believe so strongly in for others. Am I not an equal member of the human race? Don’t I deserve a gracious loving teacher, just like a kid does?
I can’t help but think of it in the same way I do in my classroom. My students are held responsible for all their choices. Yet the consequence is logical and based on love from me. If they fall out of their chair – that’s enough to learn a lesson. If they are wasting time, I take some of their time. If they do something that they didn’t really know was wrong, I am not going to punish them and make them feel guilty for not knowing.
In her book “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth Gilbert feels similarly about guilt as she learned what it meant to forgive and to love herself again after her divorce. She found peace with herself through eastern religion, living with a healer and eating a lot of pasta. It’s a cozy, attractive idea that speaks right to my individualistic view of this world. Have I had it wrong all these years?
Humans begin learning from the time they open their infant eyes to the time they are closed for them, wrinkled and old. We don’t know everything to begin with – yet a good learner takes what they already know and applies it to each new decision. A bad learner makes the same mistake over and over. I still don’t know who this kind and gracious teacher is. Is it me, my family, or my friends? Is it a higher power? Like God?
Elizabeth Gilbert believes that God is a combination of all of them. The most important, the most powerful is yourself. The one you have constant contact with, who breaks you down or builds you up, your worst enemy. She believes that she is God inside. Yet I don’t feel like God is inside me because my understanding is that God is omnipotent and omniscient. I don’t control everyone, nor do I know everything.
Within the small little world that is myself, the depths of my soul seem as deep as the ocean and the expanse of my thoughts seem to reach the sky. I am god. Or maybe more like a queen or president. I can’t control what happens from the outside. But I can control myself and my reactions. I can be my own gracious teacher.
Maybe each person makes up a small world within a larger universe that is the human race. Each self-governing, yet completely able to affect and be affected by others. Maybe each bad thing that happens in not a direct result of another wrong or Karma jumping out of the shadows to bite your ankle. Maybe shit just happens. Logical consequences follow bad choices. Missteps and fumbles follow inexperience. And learning results.
Why haven’t I lived by the same rules that I teach my students in my classroom? Why couldn’t I forgive myself and move on or care for myself when I was learning to walk? I had the power to do so. I always tell my kids to focus on their growth, not their shortcomings. This understanding of forgiveness for poor choices, patience for stumbling and celebration for progression could have saved me many fights with those bullies-guilt and regret.
Looking forward, I will probably still be selfish. This is something I have learned that is wrong, yet I still manage to do at least once a day. Yet other things I have done don’t have to haunt me like they once did. I am one being today – not the Detta who lived ten years ago. I tend to exist like there are thousands of me standing around and we are all yelling at each other, giving dirty looks and doling out penance requirements.
For every other facet of my life I tend to live more singularly for right now (eat, shower, watch TV, sleep) or for tomorrow (finish grad school, longer hair, vacations). There is only one of me making the decisions and playing the part. Yet the cast of my history has so many understudies and they all refuse to get off the stage.
I want to turn around and see all of me in one perfect line so that that the only one I can see is the person of yesterday at the front of the line. I can deal with yesterday, twenty-seven years is another story. I want to take care of myself, be gracious with myself. It will develop a much more beautiful and willing-to-learn me. One who is pleased to try new things and not be afraid to fall. Confident of what she has already learned. And in the words of India Arie (who has got me through a lot of internal fights with myself)…I need to celebrate the woman I’ve become.
© 2011 D. Willson