Archive for the 'guilt' Category

In for a penny

January 28, 2014

I have in mind the saying, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

I was thinking about it in connection with a story I heard about a genie who kept abusing his power with respect to the person who had uncorked him.

At first he may actually have been unaware of the true impact of his interaction with this person.

He may also have done what he did on purpose, when he realized the “wrong” person had opened the bottle;  that is, someone who couldn’t really help him in return.  Of course, he was flawed and somewhat deceitful himself;  why he expected to be paired with someone who did not mirror that back, the story doesn’t say.

Then, the story goes, at some point he became aware that he was doing something harmful and he became acutely embarrassed, even ashamed, thinking this indicated some fault in himself he could not erase.

So he began to embrace an image of himself that was, at its heart, a consequence of his feeling bad about what had happened.  He wore black, he cultivated a rogue/outlaw image.  And he kept repeating the damaging behavior.

This was the “in for a penny, in for a pound” part.  He believed he was irredeemable.  He believed the person would not forgive him at that point.

The person actually, more than anything, just wanted the harm to stop.  In fact, the person was so harmed, they couldn’t speak for themselves and ask.  They sent someone else to ask on their behalf.  The genie didn’t recognize them, since, of course, they were not the person with whom he had the relationship.  Eventually, though, the genie became open to hearing the plea.

When he realized that just stopping now was in itself a good thing (perhaps even a significant good thing), and that perhaps eventually the harmed person would let go of any resentment, once they were in better shape, he stopped.

I think the concept of being “damned for all time” is a self-generated one, I don’t think the universe thinks in those terms, thinks at all, for that matter.  Things happen, some do cause harm, each party must then figure out a path forward.  There is grace for when that isn’t enough and it serves their greater good and the greater good in general to add some “outside” help to the situation.  I think people need to feel that there is always the possibility of forgiveness, at least at some level, even if another person directly involved can’t find it in themselves at the moment.  Moments pass.  When we feel better, maybe we can locate that forgiveness after all, unless we have willfully decided not to.  The problematic behavior does need to stop, though, for most of us to feel better enough to do this.

So the genie reforms his behavior, the other person eventually feels better, and in the ensuing iterations of the story, something else happens between them instead of the harmful behavior.  Perhaps both of them become satisfied with these next iterations, perhaps not, but they are making progress.

Falls and phoenices

March 1, 2013

Is that the plural for phoenix?

I’m thinking about public figures, especially politicians, who take a fall.  Some rise up again later, and I was wondering about why some do and some don’t.  Clearly behaviors that are used after the fall make a difference — the apology (or not), the PR firm hired, the length of withdrawal from the fray, the willingness to take whatever the next step turns out to be for reinvention.

What I’ve wondered recently is whether one variable could be how much the individual truly believed they deserved their (first) success in the first place.  If they harbored misgivings about how they came to be elected or land the nomination or whatever, and then they fall from grace in a scandal, do they have the wherewithal to think of their situation in terms of, “Well, this is interesting;  I wonder what will come out of it and how this all serves my greater good”?

I wonder whether people whose house has been built, not upon sand, but with a flaw in its foundation, implode when they fall.

Do we ask them to take the fall nonetheless?  I think we give them a raincheck until they can fall safely.

If they continue to repeat the pattern, eventually they will find themselves with new teachers and classmates, as the old cohort moves on.

I’ve been getting seemingly random wrong-number phone calls, on both my cell phone and my landline, in which there is a pause followed by an automated “Goodbye!”  I’ve wondered what it might represent metaphorically, and all I can come up with is what might happen when a soul is finishing up its final incarnation and makes good on a promise to bid one of those serial “I won’t jump because my parachute is defective” folks goodbye before she does.

Shutting down

January 26, 2013

I’m a little familiar with how a person approaching death may stop eating and drinking as the body goes through a process of shutting down.  My dad is going through that now, and home hospice nursing is supposed to begin for him this weekend, now that he’s agreed to it.

For him I saw the shutting down process begin earlier.  I had sent him a couple of books for his (88th) birthday, including one about Senator Mitch McConnell.  (He’s a fan, he thinks the senator is smart and clever and he agrees with at least some of his positions.)  He didn’t have time to read it between hospitalizations.  I had thought I was saving him a trip to his local library, because he’s been a regular there to check out books, but he had too many things to do to read the book.  And by the time I got there last week and he came home again from the hospital, he wasn’t up to it.

But he did read the newspapers on Saturday and Sunday.  By Monday or Tuesday he wasn’t even able to do that, and I knew he was reaching a point of fairly rapid decline.

He didn’t want me to leave and I wished I had some other way of handling all my responsibilities.  I had lobbied my parents to move closer after Willy’s death, but we were no competition for the New York Metropolitan Opera.

To be fair, I think my father gets out of opera performances what others get out of religious services.  So he would have been leaving his source of sustenance.

But I couldn’t, and can’t, pick up that slack, eliminate that 210 mile distance.

I’ll go back soon, I don’t know whether he will still be alive.  He wanted to know when I’d be back and I told him I wasn’t sure, that I would play it by ear.

For now I’m trying to listen, and to do what I need to do here before I can leave again.

In some ways I found listening while I was down there easier.  Things fell into place more easily than they had any right to.  Except for the day we spent obtaining a pain medication prescription for my dad.  But another day I knew somehow to bring with me the papers that needed a notarized signature when I took my mom to register with a pharmacy that makes home deliveries, even though it was the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and so many places (like banks) were closed.  And there on the pharmacy door it said “notary public.”  Stuff like that.

So now I’m here, he’s shutting down there.

Right before I left, I asked him if I could kiss him on the head, and he said, “No,”  with his usual dismissiveness.  So I stroked his nose, which was something I did as a child when I sat in his lap.  (He had thought it was because I thought he had a big nose, but it wasn’t — I just liked his nose.)  So he put up with the intimacy of my stroking his nose this time, too — I think he knew there was an element of teasing but also love in the gesture.

I ended up sleeping on the floor the last night I was there.  (The live-in help I had helped arrange for was in the guest room I had been using previously.)  It felt like what I call “old karma.”  I just play it out, like reading a music score and singing it at sight.  This not being there now feels like old karma, too.  At least there’s nursing and household help at this point.

For me there is clearly a challenge in figuring out what to do, what I can do, what I can’t do even though I would like to.  It’s a lesson to learn that I can’t always mitigate the consequences of other people’s decisions.



Closing off

June 2, 2012

“He hardens himself on the outside in order to protect whatever is left of the finer self within.”

This line from a David Brooks column some weeks ago has been bothering me ever since.

I’m thinking, “Isn’t this the definition of a narcissist, closing off the authentic self and using a persona?  People are promoting this as healthy?”

I knew a man once who was exceedingly self-protective (also wouldn’t cross in the middle a quiet street with no traffic).  I knew from the relatives through whom I met him that he had an emotionally overwhelming mother and a difficult father.  I kind of figured these factors were relevant, and wondered whether his mother had also sought from him emotional support his father did not give her.  I wondered if he had decided his only way of handling his context was to close himself off and this had become a habit.

I’ve known men who were exceedingly self-protective who probably had been sexually abused as children, and a couple of men who had been traumatized during their adolescence by war and/or the death of family members.

Today I was thinking about self-protection from outside events that have produced feelings of guilt.  There’s an old spiritual story about the equivalent of the boy taking his girl for a spin in his father’s car.  He even has permission to use the car.  But there’s an accident and his guilt leads him to try to close himself off emotionally.  And not get into that family car again.

In a spiritual “car,” one needs to be open in order to drive, because driving is done through the strand of the self that is the subconscious or the divine.  So the two reactions are really one and the same: no spiritual driving.

The sad thing here is that the boy blocks out the fact that he knows how to drive.  His girl recovers, and on her prosthetic legs, walks over to his house and asks him to take her out again for a ride.  He says he doesn’t drive, he says maybe later, he says people shouldn’t drive, he says a lot of things.  But it’s ultimately about fear and guilt, I think, which paradoxically could be lessened and dissipated through openness.


November 25, 2011

I decided to try to write here about shame because I don’t understand it, or at least I don’t call by that name the feelings it is used to label.  Or so it seems to me.

I do embarrassment and guilt all too easily, regret, too.  I am aware at times with feeling upset with myself for having done something, or not having done something, and those feelings tend to feel like a need to be better than I am, if not perfect.  Sometimes I have a really hard time letting go about feeling bad about something.   So it’s not that I don’t have negative reactions to things I’ve done.  But I think I’m missing something about the component of feeling humiliated or disgraced, of some internal feeling of having failed in some way that says something about me generally as a person, as opposed to feeling that I failed in a particular task or role.

I don’t think of myself as having particularly high self-esteem or self-confidence, so I don’t think it’s probably because somehow I think pretty well of myself despite whatever it is I’m upset that I did that I don’t feel shame.  Maybe it has more to do with how I think about myself in a structural way, that my self who did the thing isn’t all of me but sort of the front office.  So, that front office may need some house cleaning, some improvement, some retraining, and it may need to apologize and make amends or try to rectify or retry a transaction, but at the same time the inner office remains distinct.  It’s not that this inner office has no role or connection to what happened, but it is not directly responsible, it is more of an observer, like a teacher, who then helps in directing the clean-up phase.  My point here is that I don’t think I separate my actions from what I identify as self completely, but I also don’t see them as coincident.  They are not of the same sort.  Maybe instead of front office, I should use the analogy of vacuum  attachment or something for the part of me that acts; yes, the vacuum motor powers the thing, but it isn’t directly involved when the attachment eats the rug fringe.  In any case, the parts are linked and connected and integrated with each other, but they are distinct in some way that allows me to locate my identity with something different from the sum of my actions or with the part of me that engaged in them.  Maybe this allows me to have a vantage point from which to remonstrate with the part of me that acts without getting consumed by it.  This sort of set-up might be consonant with my sense of being able to witness what I do —  good, bad, and indifferent — in order to learn the lesson, neutralize the emotion, and move out of the situation and into what’s next.

I’m not sure about this explication, this is kind of extemporaneous, but I have wondered about “shame” before, and I thought maybe now was as good a time as any to try to figure out why I draw such a blank when people use it as a point of reference.  Especially because I get the sense that people who do sometimes find it crippling.  I guess I’m hoping my exploration of the subject might be helpful by suggesting there are other ways to conceptualize the self that don’t lead to moral anarchy and may be more helpful in not getting unproductively stuck in self-punishment.