Oh, The Guilt

by Bill Brenner on August 20, 2012

I’ve always been driven by guilt. I used to hide it because with guilt comes shame and with shame comes deceit. In more recent years, however, I’ve tried to use it to become a better man. Results are mixed.


My inability to process guilt started at an early age. Growing up Jewish, I’d get Hanukkah gelt (Yiddish for “money”) during the Festival of Lights. Not understanding Yiddish, I thought it was called Hanukkah guilt. “Why the fuck am I being handed guilt as a present?” I’d ask myself. Only in adulthood would I realize how a simple misunderstanding of language would shape my thinking.

Since then, guilt has been the gift that keeps on giving.

Guilt over not talking to my mom for six years. I have it in spades. Not because she’s blameless, but because I know that some of what’s gone wrong is my fault. And while I’ve written about things in childhood that made me unhappy, I haven’t given her credit for what she did right. But that’s a subject for another post.

Guilt over binge eating and other addictive behaviors. There’s been plenty of that over the years. After spending $30 at McDonald’s and another $20 at Dunkin’ Donuts on what used to be a typical binge on the drive home from work, I’d stuff the empty bags under the seats. Erin called them guilt bags, and she would eventually find them. (For more on that, see “The Most Uncool Addiction” and “Anatomy of a Binge.”)

Guilt over being a bad pet owner. In my early 20s, I had two pet rats. They were very loving and gentle. I went on a trip to California and forgot to ask someone to look after them. When I got back, I found them both dead. To this day I feel horrible about that. One lesson I learned from that: Don’t leave the tank you keep your pets in on the floor of your closet, because you could forget they’re in there.

Guilt over money. Guilt has also weighed me down when I’ve mishandled money (math was never one of my stronger traits) or lied to my wife over things I was ashamed of.

Guilt from letting some relationships languish over the years. In some cases, people are difficult and I need to keep my distance for self-preservation. Other times, though, I’m just too lazy to pick up the phone.

Parenthood guilt. I always try to be the parent who’s always gentle, listens carefully to my children’s every word and helps them deal with life’s big issues. I sometimes fail because I’m too tired or too lost behind a computer screen.

They say guilt is a useless emotion, that it causes you to waste all your time worrying about things you can’t control or change. That’s true to a point. But I’ve learned the value of guilt over the years as a tool to make me a better man.

For example, these days I’m trying to spend less time online and more time playing Monopoly and other games with the kids. It’s only a start, but it’s something.

Remembering food guilt has definitely kept me from further binges. And while my money-management skills still leave much to be desired, I don’t spend like I used to.

As for the stuff about my mother, another attempt at reconciling is not out of the question.

In its proper place, guilt is a good awareness tool.

Definition of guilt

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