Do you remember the song One by Harry Nilsson? One made it to number five in 1969 when Three Dog Night used it as the cover song on their debut album. I wasn’t quite a teenager yet but I remember the opening line “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” It would be hard to forget since it’s repeated a zillion times in the chorus. The song struck a chord with people. People who felt alone or isolated or different, or who were terrified they might, at some point find themselves alone or isolated or different.
Sad song. Even sadder and more isolating than the loneliest number is the mental music we play when we lose ourselves in guilt. Guilt is the indulgence of the unquiet mind. Guilt is the musical you can’t dance to. Sometimes guilt self inflicted. Often times guilt is flung by those oh-so-not-subtle looks or throw away sentences. We know when we’re expected to feel guilty.
“When she can’t bring me to heal with scolding, she bends me to shape with guilt.” — Libba Bray (The Sweet Far Thing).
There are some who seem immune to guilt. There’s the Frank Sinatra, I Did It My Way (with just a few regrets) group. These folks seem to have a natural immunity. Others hear a different type of music: repentance, redemption, amends, dancing music. But for many, the song they can’t get out of their heads is guilt.
1: the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly: guilty conduct
2: the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously
3: feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy: self-reproach
Guilt has a fan club. They seek out those with the proclivity for self-reproach. It makes their world go round. They are always busy watching, waiting, whispering, preying on perceived weaknesses; too shallow, or too mean to be reflective enough to experience what they so forcefully project.
Guilt is communicable. We catch it from our children, our parents, our neighbors, our friends, in churches, in grocery stores, in social action meetings. They inflict damage with the callousness of a virus, indiscriminately self-righteous.
Guilt, in varying degrees, comes naturally enough without the help of others. Most struggle with guilt: periodically or perpetually. Beyond real sin or mistakes, we’ve even invented new things to feel guilty about. We’ve created a sub-category we call guilty pleasures.
“He showed the words “chocolate cake” to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. “Guilt” was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of French eaters to the same prompt: “celebration.”
— Michael Pollan
Things we deem to be guilty pleasures include, but aren’t limited to: eating food that isn’t nutritious; reading books that aren’t found on the “100 novels you should read before entering college”/or Oprah’s Book Club list; “wasting” free time by doing anything “non-productive”; sleeping longer than the 7-8 if you’re an adult under the age of 75; watching television programs that aren’t on The History Channel or Discovery; listening to music that isn’t considered current, cutting edge or classical.
It isn’t enough to feel guilty about something bad or just regrettable. We’ve learned to feel guilty about the innocuous, even the good.
When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, he certainly got at least a portion of his anti-utopia right:
“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”
Every moment spent wallowing in guilt is a moment of living, lost. Guilt is the loneliness number that you’ll ever do. Repent if repentance is called for. Make amends if you’ve wronged another. It’s time to dance to your own soundtrack and let Guilt be the musical that plays to an empty house.