(...oh, I got guilt like a jellyfish...I got guilt like a jellyfish in my soul...)
Is this cool picture of jellyfish à propos of anything at all? Yes. I hate feeling guilty, and I hate jellyfish, or I used to hate jellyfish.
I stopped hating jellyfish when I visited the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia recently. En masse, in all different sizes, behind a glass so they couldn't sting me, their translucence set aglow with special lighting, they were displayed in such a way that I appreciated jellyfish--enjoyed them!--for the first time in my life.
And today, I had a Mystical Monday revelation. (*1) Today, some things I already knew, on one level, about how the brain works became personally relevant: How one can confront, judo style, recurring guilty memories, harnessing and redirecting their energy, instead of having them sap one's own.
Guilt is a good thing: It's a signal that something is wrong, that one needs to do something, or needs to stop doing something, to make the uncomfortable sensation go away. It's an instinct that keeps people in line so the tribe can thrive.
But what about guilt over ancient wrong-doing? Unless you need to confess to a homicide that will bring closure in a decades old cold case, guilt isn't going to do any good at all at this point, is it? And it keeps you from doing any good at all, because it deludes you into thinking you're no good at all.
I'm talking to religious people as well as people who don't believe in God here. What do you do with guilt like that? When you've already done everything you know you should do to make amends, but still, the torment?
We live in a beautiful world shot through with ugliness and cruelty. We've all contributed to the pain: Guilt is a reminder of that. Well. Instead of being immobilized by guilt you can't do anything about, one could say, "Aha!" when that kind of guilt comes a-prickin. "Here is a reminder of all the pain not caused by me that I can do something about." Make that response to ancient guilt a habit, and you'll rewire your brain.
Again, I'm thinking about people who believe in God, or who used to believe in God, or never believed in God. What harm could there be in asking: "What specific pain might that pain be, and what can I do to help, O God who is or isn't there?"
Someone asked C.S. Lewis (theologian and author of The Chronicles of Narnia) about the problem of unanswered prayer. He replied that after years of discussing the matter with many devout people, he concluded that that, while many prayers do seem to go unheeded, the most consistently and dramatically answered prayers are the ones that go along this line:
how can I be of assistance?
If I were an atheist, I'd be inclined to give that a try. Couldn't hurt, and might do a world of good, for two people anyway: the person you helped, and you.
(I've got peace like a river, peace like a river, I've got peace like a river in my soul.)
(*1) I plagued myself with "mothering mistakes I've made" memories this weekend. Sometimes, my mind with a pathological hunger for all things negative, goes routing around the ancient past looking for tasty morsels. Other times, when I'm enjoying a good movie, for instance, and something in the plot reminds me of something I did wrong fifteen years ago -- and, wow! it's all aboard the bad mommy express.
I'm all for promoting twinges of guilt assailing a mom whose kids are still in her care: Put FaceBook and the dang cell phone down for awhile, mama! and play with those babies, teach them, love them!
my kids are grown now, and when my train of thought goes
choo-choo-choo-chew-chew-chewing though the cortical nooks and crannies
where my least favorite memories are stored ..especially the memory of
that one time?...I berate myself into inertia. "It's too late to
undo the damage, the warping effects of which you will observe in their lives
until the day you die, or until they die, whichever comes first!"
So this morning, after a weekend of this nonsense, I reluctantly and unworthily dragged myself to a volunteer commitment I had made. A little while into my day, I had occasion to overhear a man giving a lecture about Chopin. "As we listen to this dramatic piece composed by twenty-year-old Frédéric, we have a sense of the emotional turmoil he was undergoing at the time."
And it hit me: I know my son has gone through some disappointments recently, but I haven't talked to him about how he's doing. "Stop this fruitless wallowing!"I told myself. "He's too old for his mom to be able to make much of anything at all better in his life, but he could probably use a listening ear. Text him, and don't you dare try to wrest from some him some Proverbs 31 "rising up to call you blessed" declaration to make you feel better. It's about him, not you."
"Do you have a few minutes today?"
"What? Did the cat die?" (**2)
"Nothing's wrong. Will 4 work?"
Later that afternoon, my son talked to me. He talked a lot. I listened...well...mostly listened. I didn't ask for a hug afterward, but I got one.
RESOLVED: Redirect the energy of every "I'm a bad mother" accusation into praying a line from Psalm 24 for my daughter, or a line from Psalm 20 for my son. (Psalm number is incremented with each birthday.) Ancient guilt doesn't doesn't do them...or anyone...a bit of good. On the days when I'm feeling as spiritual as a Styrofoam take-out box, let the ancient wise word speak, for me, blessings on my children.
For my son, and for your sons: "The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee; Send thee help from the sanctuary, and strengthen thee out of Zion."
For my daughter, and for your daughters: "This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob...Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
(**1) I haven't always been that terrific of a wife either, but my husband is
still alive, and he's so preternaturally appreciative and patient with
me, that when I do the tiniest out-of-the-ordinary kindness for him,
his loving reaction banishes my guilt over the not-so-kind things I've
done in the past.
How much more powerful to banish guilt should be the awareness of God's mercy, and the Power! (Power!) Wonder-working Power of the Precious Blood of the Lamb! So often, though, crippling guilt coincides with doubts that there is anything good in the Universe at all.
(**2) The feline abides, and she's wanting her bedtime kibble. Goodnight!