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Didn't We Always Suspect Guilt Was Good?

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Sometime in the middle of the self-help movement in the early seventies, my father came to the dinner table with a book he had just bought. It was by Thomas Harris and was entitled I'm Ok, You're Ok. "Guilt," he announced, putting the book down on the table with a thwack,"is bad for you" He further pronounced, "It's counterproductive and self-destructive."

My two sisters and I waited with bated breaths to hear what my mother would say. She, a spectacular practitioner of guilt -- one of the world's greatest experts, we assumed -- would surely take issue with this radical line of thought.

And she did.

"Are you out of your mind?" she said. "Guilt is bad? You have got to be kidding. Who is this charlatan, anyway, and what gives him the right to offer such bad advice. Guilt is what keeps us on the right track. Guilt is necessary. Guilt is good!"

Three pairs of eyes then traveled as in a tennis match to our father to see what ball he would lobby next.

"Nonetheless," he said with great gravity and assurance. "I think this guy is right and you are wrong. He makes a good case and I'm going with him. No more guilt for me."

At that point I don't remember what happened. My mother may have stormed out of the room, or that may have been another and another time she was displeased. Or she may have laughed. Or she may have said, "Ignore your father, girls, and eat your supper."

In any case, that was the only time I can remember my parents having what might pass as an intellectual disagreement. On most matters of literature, art, music and travel they seemed on the same page. But as I was to learn as I got older, on matters emotional and psychological, never the twain shall meet. For the rest of her life -- until her diagnosis of Alzheimer's -- my mother has lived on guilt, hers and the stirring of it in others: her sisters, her children, anyone who will grab hold of it. My father, on the other hand, still feels no guilt about anything as far as I can tell. If he does, he does not admit it. Even when he calls and says that he hasn't heard from me in awhile, the sentence has never been as loaded as the same one coming from my mother's mouth.

But, be that as it may, I have always lived like with guilt as a motivating factor. Guilt, for me, is intertwined with both conscience and behavior. And now I am thrilled to read that science has vindicated me.

According to a recent article in http://http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/25/science/25tier.html?th&emc=th the New York Times long term studies at the University of Iowa have determined that guilt -- or "that sinking feeling in the tummy" is indeed one of the motivating factors of behavior; the other being "effortful self control," which I posit is often much harder to come by than good old-fashioned guilt.

As a teenager, we had a place called Jack's Drive In. What we did on a weekend evening was "circle Jack's," driving 'round the bank of cars parked at the screens which you would yell into and order food. If we found a space, we would park. If not, the car would slow and one or some of us would get into the car of another friend parked. Sometimes we would order something cheap like French fries, which we all would share. We would get a Coke or two and pass it around. We could and did circle Jack's for hours at a time, and our parents knew this was where we were.

However, many times when I told my parents I was at Jack's, I wasn't exactly lying, but I sure wasn't telling the truth. As we got older a bunch of us took to hanging out at the house of a 30-something year-old heroin addict named Jack, whose father had bought him a house to get him out of theirs. The place had no furniture save for a few beanbag chairs and mattresses on the floor and we could pretty much do whatever we wished. I never did anything horrible but it was a cool place to go and I spent some time there. When I got home and my parents asked where I had been and I said Jack's I rationalized that I wasn't exactly misleading them. But the fact is that that sinking feeling in my tummy was there the whole time.

And it's been there whenever I've done something, anything, that I know wasn't quite kosher.

I'm just glad science has proved my mother and me right. Too little guilt and you're a sociopath or a kindergartner who doesn't understand the implications of continually smacking another kid, the research finds. And interestingly enough, "Some children's temperament makes them prone to guilt...and some become more guilt-prone thanks to parents and other early influences."

I got it from both my temperament and my parents. I am awash with guilt. But now, oddly enough, that fact doesn't make me feel nearly as guilty.


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