Your mother’s birthday dinner is the same night as your friend’s party, a party you’ve been looking forward to for weeks. Which event would you choose to attend?
You’ve just run up a big bill at a fine dining restaurant, when you notice your server has forgotten to include two dishes in it. Would you bring it to his or her attention when you could simply underpay and walk away?
You have an important presentation at work, but as luck would have it your child is running a fever. Would you be the professional you’re paid to be or the mommy you want to be?
You’re traveling to another city on business when you meet someone very attractive. The temptation to cheat on your spouse is strong and no one will ever know. Would you be able to go through with it?
Some say that it’s love and some say that it’s money, but the truth is, it’s guilt that makes the world go round.
Guilt: it’s that five letter word for a conscience. It’s the fine line between monogamy and having a fling. It’s what keeps the ring on the finger. It’s the ongoing never-ending war between the stay-at-home mom and the career woman. It’s what keeps the poor on the streets but out of prison and brings the rich to orphanages to make donations.
Guilt is the difference between casual conversation and rambled justification, the age old distinction between greed and ambition.
Guilt. The world depends on it. It survives on it.
Human goodness, common courtesy and decent behavior are all offshoots whose roots lie in guilt. Guilt and its partner in crime, fear. Fear of role reversal.
“What if this happened to me?”
“Why was I spared?”
“What you sow, so shall you reap.”
These are all tools of our conscience to keep us good.
It’s this anticipation of the guilt we will feel if we act on all our desires, of how our actions will affect the ones we love, and whether it’s worth chasing our every whim, of doing as we please, saying what we want, going where we choose, at the cost of forever altering our relation with them.
Guilt is often misconstrued as a negative emotion, an implication of having done something gravely wrong. It is often associated with shame and regret and considered something that deserves punishment.
But it need not be! None of the situations mentioned above were acted upon. But we could already sense the guilt we would feel if we made the selfish choice.
Guilt is the barometer of our conscience. For every decision we take, our moral compass points us in the right direction. And should we lean towards the wrong one, the force of our guilt pulls us back.
Although it can be suppressed, only some have the ability to do so. In which case they cloak it in the shroud of their career, true love or family. They cloak it in complex words like career, empowerment, me-time, spiritual journey.
But if we learn to accept guilt and allow it to guide us, like all good things guilt can be a great driving force that helps us do the right thing and remain good.
And in return, it gets its encouragement from the feel-good emotion that is vital for our existence. It rewards us with social recognition for doing the so-called right thing.
If only we learn to recognize the feeling and follow its path, rather than succumb to temptation and allow our guilt to fester into the worst version of itself. It’s an art we must perfect, a delicate balance—and blessed are the ones who can walk this tightrope.
Author: Nitya Satyani
Editor: Alli Sarazen
Photo: Hartwig HKD/Flickr