A few weeks ago a very good friend and I were driving through town, delivering signs for an event. We were discussing vacation plans and I told her about a rule I’ve been tinkering with, that I would fly only to visit family, not for recreation. She asked me why, which surprised me because she knows me so well. I explained that I want to keep my carbon footprint small. She immediately said, “Oh, so you’ve been riding your bike around town then, have you?”
That struck me dumb. My first (unspoken) reaction was: so a thing is only worth doing if one can do it perfectly? Is that a standard you hold yourself to, or do you only take it out when it suits you? I didn’t say that, of course, but I think my words still had an edge when after a deep breath I said: “I will not take that poison of purity. Yes, I’m not perfect, but that shouldn’t stop me from doing what I can.”
There was so much that was not right about that whole conversation. We were both on the defensive, there was no conversation possibly after that – thank goodness there was work to do! More importantly, I had failed to see what was really going on. The exchange had not, fundamentally, been about purity. It had been about guilt. Always it is guilt, the elephant in the room, behind which hides the mammoth: grief.
I had spoken from responsibility: I take responsibility for the grievous things I do, and thereby work to minimize them. My sense of responsibility stems from grief – some of which is grief that I cannot indeed be pure in a perfect world. I no longer feel guilty about what I can’t do or haven’t done, but I do grieve them. And I find that grieving gives me insight and strength. It also, seemingly paradoxically, gives me great joy when I do find a way to make things better. I write “seemingly paradoxically,” because there is no paradox: that is what grief does, it allows for joy, it is, indeed, joy’s necessary companion (*). Guilt, on the other hand, is all-encompassing, it smothers everything that is not guilt: if you act for the good out of guilt, you will always only find more guilt, more ways in which you haven’t acted or can’t act, for the good.
So, there it is: I spoke from grief. She instantly turned it into guilt.
Why? I don’t know. I know that our culture mistakes grief for guilt. Why? I think Stephen Jenkinson would say it is because to grieve means ultimately to face death (that we cannot be pure and everlasting in a perfect world), and our dominant culture fears death so much it would rather embrace guilt. Guilt, in its passionate accusation seems to be – seems to be – more about life, more enlivening, but in the long run it is what kills life. Now there’s another culprit: the “long run”. We are no longer capable of thinking seven generations ahead. I’ve even heard a parent say, jokingly: “our kids will solve it!” That’s the same as saying: I refuse to grieve – and therefore I am incapable of taking responsibility. Or perhaps it is because grief, unlike guilt, is not something you can give away or project onto someone else. It is so intimately yours and yours alone and you are alone in it…
What to do? What to do?