I wrote a few weeks ago about my incessant feelings of guilt and shame. In an ideal world, I’d be updating you all with the news that I’ve found a way to rid myself of these overwhelming (and, more often than not, overwhelmingly unhelpful) feelings. But, of course, my weekly therapy sessions and iterative self-improvement processes (journaling, meditating, thought-restructuring) don’t produce change overnight.
What I have done, however, is continue to explore and challenge these thoughts and feelings of guilt. I had two revelations this past week I wanted to share, especially if the struggles I described in my original post resonated with you.
First, and, ok, this wasn’t so much a “revelation” as it was a conversation with (my logical half) Thomas:
Me: I’ve been doing a lot of pro bono work [at Salesforce] recently. It’s cool because I get to work with a bunch of different nonprofits instead of just one, and it’s amazing how passionate people are about so many different causes.
Thomas: *sits there silently because he knows I’m entering full-on ramble mode, so even if he managed to get a word in edgewise I’d probably interrupt him*
Me: But it also stresses me out because I become more and more aware of causes that need attention and I can’t give to all of them. So it kind of just amplifies this guilt that I have about never doing enough. And also the guilt that I have about my privilege because people are suffering in so many ways.
Me: *continues to ramble about how guilty I feel for not doing more volunteer work, or doing something greater to help people, and how awful I feel about myself because of what I’ve been given, but haven’t “deserved”*
Thomas: Well, you could use the energy you spend tearing yourself down to raise other people up instead.
Yowzers. Get owned, Maddy.
Like I said, Thomas is my voice of logic and reason. Whenever I find myself spiraling down into a black hole of unhelpful/intrusive/negative thoughts I ask myself, “What would Thomas say about this thought?” More often than not I end up laughing because, when my thoughts are articulated – especially out loud – it becomes clear that they are generally… pretty ridiculous. Or dramatic, or illogical, etc.
In this conversation’s case, I was struck by how right he was. Of course it’s not helpful for me to waste time and energy tearing myself down. Somewhere along the line I’d convinced myself that privilege, suffering, and happiness were zero-sum games: that if I tore myself down, it would inherently raise others up. That if I self-inflicted suffering, others would feel better. That beating myself up would “motivate” me to do better and more for others.
But, of course, that’s not how the world works. Feeling additional guilt for my privilege wasn’t only not helping others, it was also leaving me paralyzed and less able to help others. And also, how did it make sense for me to want to ensure that everyone (including myself) was on the same – but lower -level, instead of wanting to raise those below me up to mine?
My second revelation came – in what had to be more than just coincidence – in the book I was reading: Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. In it, Kalanithi touches upon religion’s role in his life:
“The main message of Jesus, I believed, is that mercy trumps justice every time. Not only that, but maybe the basic message of original sin isn’t ‘Feel guilty all the time.’ Maybe it is more along these lines: ‘We all have a notion of what it means to be good, and we can’t live up to it all the time.’”
There’s no better feeling than being delivered a message – via a book, a song, a conversation, a scent, whatever it may be – when you need it most. (Or maybe, of course, we now hear the message because we’ve opened ourselves to receiving it.)
Yes, I could be giving more. I could be a better, more selfless, more good person. But, for the most part, so could everyone else I know. And while it might be impossible for me to stop striving for this “good” ideal, I could probably start cutting myself a little more slack.