Guilty with an explanation

Guilt is a particularly tricky emotion. We know that it is a problem to be without guilt. Remorse, regret for a thought or action that harms another person, requires sensing one’s guilt, or else it is empty. Remorse can move one to an action, to do something to rectify, to the extent that it’s possible, a wrong that’s been done. But it isn’t a one-to-one relationship. We can do what’s right without feeling remorse and we can feel remorse and keep doing what we know we will regret.

Yet guilt may play a role in our lives that isn’t so good for our mental well-being. Part of the problem is that we feel guilt about things that are way beyond our control. I’m clumsy, for example. Why do I feel guilty when a stub my toe? As we grow older, we feel guilty about all the signs of my age. Why? No one can “control” the fact that our bodies age, that life ends in death.

There was a television decades ago called “Traffic Court,” where people would plead their cases to the judge. Sometimes they’d claim they were innocent of some traffic violation or other, but more often they’d say they were “guilty with an explanation, your honor.” I tried that line when I got my first ticket — for not coming to a full stop and a light. I explained that I’d just gotten my first car and my breaks weren’t correctly adjusted. I showed him the bill for the repair. The judge listened and said the words I’d heard so often on TV: “Ten dollars or ten days.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I think many of us have this feeling frequently. We know we’ve done something that isn’t quite right, but there’s a reason, an explanation. Why do we feel we have to justify ourselves? There are a thousand things we feel we should do in the course of each day. But if we don’t do everything we feel we should and do a few things we shouldn’t, is there any value in feeling guilty about it, feeling we need to explain ourselves, justify our existence as we are?

The worst part is that guilt hurts. Like pangs of love or lust, we feel it viscerally. That seems right when our guilt is alerting us that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. But when it’s just a matter of being oneself the best one can manage to do it, then I wish there were some way we could just “give ourselves a break,” lighten up on ourselves and go on with our lives.

It isn’t a matter of not caring. Being ourselves also means being empathic, feeling the feelings of others.

So perhaps our explanation is a simple one: We’re human. We’re fallible.

Hopefully, we’re doing the best we can.

Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning