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Bay Window: Seeing the futility of false guilt

Guilt. If it had a face, it would look a lot like the ax-waving monster that chased me through my nightmares as a child.

How dare you, it says, do the things you do or have the things you have, when others never get a chance to enjoy them!

It’s a hard question to answer, especially if you’re running from an ax. Often, I don’t try. I just keep running and feeling bad.

But sometimes, on my better days, I arch my back and come up with an answer that stops the guilt monster in its tracks.

Last week, after my first eye exam in five years, I walked out of the doctor’s office grinning like a mule eating briars.

(Note: Smart people get eye exams annually. I am not smart. Do as I say, not as I do. Get your eyes checked every year.)

I had just been told by a clearly brilliant ophthalmologist that my eyes hadn’t changed a bit and that I still had 20/20 vision.

Good news, right? For five minutes, I was thrilled. Then the guilt hit. Most people appreciate good eyesight. But some of us value it more than others.

My brother, 4 years younger than I am, was born premature. He spent two months in an incubator, and at 6 months, he was found to be totally blind from an overdose of oxygen.

If his blindness ever weighed him down, he never let it show. But I grew up carrying the weight of it on my shoulders.

“Sister,” he would say, “tell me what it looks like.”

Then I would describe for him as best I could the sun that warmed his face or the moon that cooled the night or the feathers of the crows that flew cawing across the pasture.

If I failed to get it right, he would say, “That’s not it; try again.”

Have you ever tried to put into words things that can only be described with feelings that come from the soul?

It’s hard not to feel guilty walking out of an eye exam with great vision, knowing that you have a brother who is totally blind.

Why do I see when he can’t? He doesn’t deserve to be blind any more than I deserve to have 20/20 vision. Where is the fairness? How do you explain it?

The truth, of course, is that there is no explaining it. It just is what it is. Joe is blind. I am not. So why the guilt?

When my first husband died of cancer, I kept asking myself, why did I get to go on living and he didn’t? Why did I get to see our children finish college, fall in love, get married and have children of their own? Why did he have to miss all the things I could not imagine missing?

I often hear from readers who are struggling with similar questions for their own lives. I don’t have answers for them, any more than I do for myself.

The problem with false guilt – with blaming ourselves for things that aren’t our fault and cannot be changed – is that it blinds us to beauty and numbs us to life. It hurts, not just us, but everyone close to us. And yet how do we make it stop?

What I’ve learned is this: Guilt is a feeling begging to be an action. It doesn’t want you to feel bad. It wants you to move.

So I do. I try to act in a way that turns guilt into honor.

To honor my brother, I try to see everything he will never see. Every sunset. Every falling leaf. Every smile on every face.

To honor my late husband, I try to be alive in ways that he used to be. I delight in family, friends, people in general, and all the crazy things they do. I pull for the Giants and the Warriors. And I say yes to every chance to learn and grow and be alive.

Instead of wallowing in guilt, I see for someone who will never see. And I live well for someone who is no longer alive. I do it for that person. But mostly I do it for me.

It’s not easy to see the world with all its glories and faults, or to be alive in all the ways that life demands. But it’s a lot more fun than feeling bad. Try it.