I’ll describe guilt as that uncomfortable feeling that one has gone against one’s conscience, at least that’s what ideally it should be. Yet that feeling can expand into situations where that unease can erode our principles and undermine our values.
We begin to form our moral foundation from the discipline of our parents . We defer to their ethical experience, and believe that they have a greater hold on what’s right and wrong, what’s fair, and so on. Parents become the primary agents of culture, teaching us how to acclimate to societal norms..As we age, though, we could see that they are only human, they make errors, and perhaps their moral compass was calibrated to their environment and times. “Because I said so” becomes an increasingly weaker argument, and solely a declaration of power. In fairness to parents, often they are simply attempting to keep us from repeating the mistakes they made. Often ethical transmission may be simply an attempt to validate their principles. That does not stop the questioning, though as the universality of teen rebellion can attest. We begin to challenge our parents assertion of what’s ethical and fair. We may look within, to our peers and the wider popular culture to get our new cues on how to behave.
Breaking customs appears to be one of the greatest difficulties within families since they are often the rites that are considered unifying. My mother used to get fixated on dates, on one particular occasion there was a silly family altercation simply because someone else forgot Mother’s Day and didn’t call. Now I didn’t believe in recognizing these “greeting card” holidays (and still don’t) , but did it to appease her. When I found out about this conflict and my mother’s righteous indignation, I immediately declared I would no longer recognize those holidays, since they were now becoming a potential source of conflict. My mother suggested I cared less about her if I didn’t, I responded I didn’t like my feelings to be dictated by the calendar.
Enter religion. I was taught on the importance of God at home and in school, and was told that without that religious guidance I would go astray. I was skeptical, and felt that I could infer some of the rules of the Bible intellectually (I was raised Roman Catholic), and didn’t feel that was needed for it to be sent down by God. I get the sense that guilt drives much of religion, as we must carry the burden of Adam’s original sin, making us responsible for decisions we didn’t make. I confessed to a priest only once, and never again. I can see the use many people can get some peace of mind from it, but couldn’t see how this man could give me absolution.
Guilt cues us in to violations to our values, ethics, principles, and agreements. However, I began to feel that it is unfair to hold us accountable to principles we didn’t pick. Often guilt can simply be a response to seeing a loved one get hurt after some act or expression. We often believe we’ve hurt the person, but it can be just as likely that the person hurt themselves by projecting expectations onto us, and holding us responsible for surprising them in an unpleasant way. Nonetheless, we feel bad, call it guilt when perhaps it’s simply a fear of alienation. To fulfill expectations we didn’t agree to condemns us to reaffirm existing culture instead of engaging and participating with it by questioning, examining and challenging it when it fails to resonate with us. We become agents of conformity. We can erode the confidence to form our individual principles and become spectators to the ever-shifting tides of ideas that make the amorphous blob of mores and customs we call culture.