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Guilt: The Musical

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.

5 thoughts on “Guilt: The Musical

  1. We learned guilt at a very early age. I am still a master. Not sure just why at 65 I still do such a remarkable job of feeling guilty. I can feel guilty over “guilty pleasures”, things I have left undone or things I feel I should have done or said. Not feeling guilty is a constant struggle.

    • For me, guilt was an addiction, like drinking or gambling. I was hooked on guilt for so long that I couldn’t see anything wrong with it. But bit by bit, guilt was destroying me. Most people can drink without becoming alcoholics. Most people can go to a casino now and then without becoming a compulsive gambler. Most people can do guilt in little bits and let it go. Not me. Like you, Sis, I can’t remember not feeling guilty about something and we were pretty good as far as kids go. I don’t blame anyone. I don’t know where it came from, but I do know I spent most of my life swimming in it. I’m not one of those people who can do guilt in moderation, so I had to finally give it up, cold turkey. The temptation is still there like it is for most addictions, but now when I’m tempted I mentally walk away like a drunk from a drink or a gambler from the slots. I’ve quit apologizing for the already confessed sins and the uncommitted ones. It’s almost surreal, this lightness. I recommend it.

  2. So how many times in life do I have unrealistic expectations? So maybe my expectations are noble, lofty, awe inspiring, but they’re nothing if they’re not realistic. My emotional boogey man is disappointment, it can sabotage dreams, throw cold water on my heart faster than I can hope, drag me down. If I’m disappointed in my work, my relationships, disappointed in my spiritual life, my church, so many things about life, it can put a damper on just about anything, cause my hope to sink. If disappointment was a thing, a substance, it would be lead, wet wool or black silt. I want to turn my disappointments into something good and pure and I think that’s possible. I want to link my dreams to hope, I want the disappointment to be a springboard, not a diving board to the depths. I really think a disappointment can be turned to praise. If I’m disappointed in something, I’m trying to turn it around in my mind and look for the good, in the circumstance, the person, pinpoint why the expectation was flawed, ground my thoughts to what is real.

    Here are some quotes I like that put a positive spin on my disappointing thoughts on disappointment.

    “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

    “Disappointment to a noble soul is what cold water is to burning metal; it strengthens, tempers, intensifies, but never destroys it.” Eliza Tabor

    “Disappointments are to the soul what the thunder-storm is to the air” Friedrich Von Shiller, German poet

    This one may be as quirky as the author, but YES.. laughter is a remedy to just about anything!

    “Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything.”
    Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

    • “To be disappointed in oneself is to have believed in oneself” is a quote from Green Letters, I believe. It was one I memorized, so I hope that I remember it accurately! I repeated it often in an attempt to stop believing in something as impotent as myself. I am not able to do anything apart from God’s grace. I believe that. This quote is what helped me to come to that understanding. Well…that and a ton of failures! Whether lead or wet wood or black silt, it all feels horrible when you’re already flat out depressed! For me, I had to put my hope in my creator. He’s the only One who will not disappoint. Everyone and everything aside from Him will always fail eventually. I don’t know if that quote is the springboard to my hopes, but I think it might just be.

      So to extrapolate, finish this sentence To be disappointed in ________ is to have believed in ___________. There you have it. Was that a good place to put your belief, your hopes? For me, the answer is always no, aside from Him.

    • Linda, that is so well put. Whatever our torment:disappointment, fear, guilt, we willing wear it, heavy, dark and wet. Only when we’re convinced we don’t need it will we feel free to cast the cloak into the corner. If I may add to your disappointment quotes:
      “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.” C.S. Lewis

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