Dies in his own too-much.” – Shakespeare (Hamlet)
Guilt is like power: always in the wrong hands, and rarely used with proper moderation or purpose. Like anger and sadness, guilt has purpose: to guide us and grow us, but anything more than a pinch in the mix can take over the composition of our lives. Stereotyping truthfully here: Being a girl, being asian, and being Catholic growing up really gave me a triple propensity for feeling guilt. Extreme guilt. I’ve come to realize that a large portion of my painful experiences in life were attached to some form of it:
– guilt about my brother Dedrick’s death, that maybe my family was too close and so we had to be punished somehow. This also led to –
– guilt for getting pregnant at 19 with an uneducated, illegal alien, and trying to rectify the pain and shame I caused my parents from it by sticking it out with him, even though I was miserable, in hopes that it would turn around and ease my parents’ sorrows
– guilt over the terrible “choice” I’d made to give my sweet, innocent children such an unworthy man to represent as their father
– guilt that I didn’t become the accomplished person that everyone expected of me before Dedrick died
– guilt that I could not save my parents’ marriage after Dedrick’s death
– guilt that I could not save my surviving brother from living in the streets and in gangs to survive
– guilt that I could not keep my children from going through the pain they had to process growing up
– guilt that I could not help my mother, who mentally went wayward and made poor choices therefrom, so I had to cut her out of my life (and guilt from that)
– guilt that I could not provide a comfortable old age for my father, who, in his 70s, after having survived a back riddled with bullets from the Vietnam war; after starting over in a foreign country; after having put in much sweat equity without a single complaint, having built a good life for his family, only to have one son killed, another lost to the streets, and his daughter penned up in an abusive relationship; after all of that, still does heavy manual construction labor to care for himself
– guilt that all of these things were because I allowed myself to fall into an imprisoning relationship, and that if I hadn’t, I could have been there to save my family.
These are just a few things that I burdened myself with guilt over (the comprehensive list is staggering – I see them floating in the peripheral). But I don’t know if I could have avoided it – I was a very compassionate person who took ownership of my actions and mistakes, and always wanted to be sure everyone was okay, even above my own well-being. It was easy for me to accept the guilt that bad things were of my doing, rather than hurt others with accusations.
And in the aftermath of a tragedy that made no sense and rendered my family hopeless, powerless, guilt persuaded, “If you’re to blame, then you can just change, and then these bad things won’t happen anymore.” So I carried that philosophy into my relationship at the time, striking down every instance of my screaming intuition in favor of accepting every cruel thing that Adalberto (his real name; may the truth of him be billboarded to save others) would do/say to me, including that I was a terrible person, and that God punished me for it by killing my brother. For anybody, that is hurtful, but for a young girl who had recently lost her brother, her loving family, her friends, youth, and dreams; who was so naive that she didn’t understand about stalking or sociopaths, never dated, barely knew about sex; who was isolated from the world to make babies so a manipulative man could have permanent legal rights to stay in her country and continue to torment her; who didn’t even have internet at that time to learn all the things she needed to know in her situation, such a comment was brutal.
The funny thing about guilt, even when you can mentally process the logic of the reality to not be as guilt suggests, it seeps deep down through layers of your being. I hated the man for his cruelty, and knew he was wrong, yet the guilt stained and stung and would not let me ignore.
But there is a grace to this part of my story. My son, one of the things that that man hoped to chain me to him, at only 4 looked up at me in one of my crying bouts and said, “Why don’t we just leave him?” In that instant, the tremendous burden of being obligated to stay was lifted, and soon after, my plans to escape would form and come to fruition.
I would be struggling with great guilt for another decade or so, with different people and arenas. I had family members telling me daily that I was going to hell for not staying with my abuser. When I stopped working full-time because my little one had febrile seizures, I had people who didn’t even have children tell me that I should be working, that I was lazy and selfish. I had always given people compassion and understanding, a shoulder, a hand, and a dollar whenever I could, but they didn’t return even the courtesy of the benefit of the doubt. The world was so full of confused people saying and doing unkind things, and I was told to constantly forgive and have compassion or that I was not really a good person. I became so angry that I started feeling guilty that I was ever so nice to so many thoughtless people in the first place! Imagine that – any excuse to feel guilty!
I had a monumental shift in my guilty tendencies when I finally had to evict own mother from my home. That is a whole other story. But let me tell you, once you’ve mustered enough courage to take your mother to court, game over for future oppressors. It took a LOT for me to get to that point. And it was one of the best things I ever did for myself.
It taught me that guilt, for the most part, was an useless emotion. Once I got that, I was free, happy, and at peace for the first time in decades. From this place, I have become more capable of helping others, as well, starting with my own children.
I think I am still quite accommodating, and kind (my heart feels steadily warm and full), and actually more patient than ever. But if I don’t like someone, I’m okay with that. If something pisses me off, I remind myself to trust my instincts and allow the process. And, as you may have read, if I don’t feel like forgiving, I won’t guilt myself into it. Not anymore.
Guilt is not completely out of my system. It still pokes its head in the door every so often and says, “now?” and I have to shake my head no, and then it leaves. Sometimes I’ll entertain it by asking it what it wants, and it tells me. I can sympathize with it – or not. Guilt and I rarely see each other, but I know it’s there, and it knows who the boss is. It is no longer the grossly inflated monster that thought and directed my life for me; that one, I’ve offed with its head.