Mea Culpa—But Aren’t We All?
I don’t feel all that much in the way of generalized or existential guilt, at least no more than my share, and no guilt at all when it comes to sex. I certainly have an increased share of very focused guilt, but that’s not what I’m going to talk about. Never mind the worries in the wakeful hours of the night about what I might have done differently to help my second son with Asperger’s Syndrome, and whether I did too much or too little for him when he was younger, or possibly both. Nope, not going there. A certain degree of equilibrium has been achieved, and that’s that.
What I’d rather do is go way, way back into prehistory—not literally, but speculatively—and theorize about the origins and necessity of guilt.
In a dangerous world, there are things that a child must learn for survival, and that parents must teach them, even if it takes scolding or corporal punishment. A hot fire will teach its own lesson, but a mother will try to forestall that drastic method. Wandering away from the cave or hut or roving family group can be so perilous that any lesson comes too late to do any good, so a parent must enforce the rules by any means necessary. Scolding or disapproval or slaps from those a small child relies on for love and sustenance is likely to be internalized as something like guilt, and even the fact that adults are so much bigger and stronger can make the child feel weak and unworthy. (Let’s not even try to venture into the complexities of toilet training, or whatever the equivalent was for our very early forbears.) Then, when the child is a bit older, there are the customs and expectations and taboos of the extended family or tribe that must be conformed to or risk further scolding and punishment, or even expulsion.
There’s no getting around the fact that guilt can be an effective tool for survival. Taboos generally originated for good reasons, and forbidden places or foods or activities were forbidden because they were dangerous. The taboos sometimes hung on long past their usefulness, but that’s a different matter.
Sexual taboos get more complicated. Incest may have been seen as bad for the genetic health of the group, but some cultures thought it was a fine idea in order to keep resources in the family. The patriarchal family structure and sexual exclusivity for women probably came about when people had amassed enough property or possessions or grazing rights or whatever to want to be sure they would be inherited by their biological offspring. For men that meant making sure their wives had sex only with them, which led to regarding women as property too. Religion got into the sex taboo business as part of the general obsession with procreation and lineage, although not all cultures took it as far as the Old Testament prohibition of masturbation, i.e. “spilling your seed on the ground.”
Religion’s connection with guilt may have its roots in the universal child/parent power differential, with adults still feeling the need to have some larger, stronger, potentially nurturing or punishing entity to obey or placate or beg for help. Going waaay out on a limb here, I even wonder sometimes whether modern BDSM acts as a quasi-religion for some people, but I’m in no way qualified to make any such judgment. There’s no denying that religion as a source of authority does play a large part in people’s feelings of guilt.
My meandering theorizing here has some slight basis in things I’ve read, and anthropologists have put forth similar speculations, but I’m too lazy to search out authoritative sources, so let’s just call it idle conjecture. The one point that bears remembering, I think, is that yes, as others have said, your parents are responsible for most of your guilt, but they got it from their parents, and so on back (most likely) to before our ancestors were even what we now call human. Without their necessary guilt, most of us wouldn’t be here at all. But without that guilt, and the many additional kinds that developed along the way, we might have less of the PTSD-like conditions that affect our collective unconscious, and be a good deal happier.
Maybe I’ve been right to try not to use guilt to change my son. Maybe not. Well, I did, a bit, and it didn’t work. But let’s not go there now. We’re getting by.