Thursday, August 7, 2014

Essay: The Guilt Monster Under the Bed

My daughter has a funny story about a couch. I’m sure it wasn’t so funny at the time, but then that’s usually how the best of these stories are. It’s her story, but it was our couch, so I’ll tell it.
She and her husband just drove four days across the country in a rented moving van. Only days before they left, my wife and I decided to offer them our couches. We’d had them for years, but they were in excellent condition, only the fabric was a little out of date.
Of course they would take them. Were we absolutely sure we wanted to give them away? Yes, we said. We’d wanted to update the look of the living room anyway and this would give us our excuse. My son in-law said there was a small chance the larger couch wouldn’t fit in their new apartment, but we agreed that they needed the furniture and it would be worth the try.
Well, after four days of reassuring texts from the road, once they arrived, we didn’t hear from them again for several days, and only after my wife broke down and called first. Finally, it all came out.
Our daughter was avoiding us because even with the additional help of her mother in-law and brother and sister in-law, after hours of hefting, hoisting, twisting, and teetering—even after hacksawing all four legs off—the five of them still couldn’t get the couch up the stairwell to the third story apartment and they had to leave it out on the curb.
“I was ready to saw it in half,” she later told me, “but there was some kind of metal bar going through it and everyone convinced me to just let it go.”
“So how long were you going to go without talking to us,” her mother scolded, “over something so unimportant as a stupid couch?” Then she immediately added, “That was a really nice couch, by the way…you know, we had it for a long time.”
Mother’s have a way of overplaying the guilt card sometimes.
Guilt is funny like that. Maybe because it’s a self inflicted wound. You don’t have to punish me because I already have…that kind of thing; but also, you should feel bad because now I’m hurting…all because of my consideration for your feelings, or whatever…the psychology is beyond me. All I know is, now I’m feeling guilty for pushing the couch on my daughter in the first place…See what I mean?
My wife claims that people in my family were born with an extra guilt gene. She might be right, but people born without a guilt gene are known as psycho killers, so I say better safe than sorry.
I had a similar run-in with guilt as a young child, a life defining moment no doubt: the day I first met the monster guilt…
There were two bathrooms in our house, the one we all shared with mom, which was located in the main hallway and had a bath-shower combo; and the one known as Dad’s bathroom, which was smaller and next to the laundry room. It only had a shower. When you had to go though, amenities didn’t matter; the one closest (and unoccupied) was always the most convenient. One Saturday, my dad decreed that we were no longer allowed to pee in his bathroom. At this time, there were probably five of us. I was the fourth, and with one sister the oldest and the other sister in diapers, that obviously meant us boys.
I remember the moment of the crime clearly. In fact, I can even see it. The very next day, there I was in my church clothes, pants down around my ankles, peeing like a fountain-angel into my dad’s toilet…when it hit me: I’m not supposed to be in here! It didn’t matter that I remembered to put the seat up this time, or that anyone would even notice (or care) that I was in there, or that I wasn’t really done peeing yet. No, I yanked up my pants, ran out of there straight to my bedroom, and crawled under my bed…all the way under, against the wall, and burrowed in among the forgotten toys and monster dust-bunnies.
I’m not sure exactly how long I was under there; but soon enough, my mother began calling for me. Where was I? Was I ready? We were going to be late for church! I wanted to come out, but I couldn’t bear the shame of what I’d done, nor the punishment I was sure to receive.
Then, it seemed everyone was looking for me. I could hear my sister and brothers yelling my name. Various pairs of Sunday shoes ran in and out of the bedroom, and my mother’s voice was becoming more and more shrill and urgent…which only terrified me more.  
   Then my mother’s head suddenly appeared below the bottom edge of the bed, and her hand soon followed. She grabbed me by the arm, dragged me out, and shook me. “Why were you hiding under the bed!” she screamed. “Why didn’t you answer me!”
“Daddy is going to spank me,” I whimpered.
“Why on earth would your father spank you?”
“Because I peed in his bathroom!” I cried.
“Your father IS NOT going to spank you for using his bathroom!” she said, shaking me again. “But I AM for ignoring me!”
And then she did, four good ones.
Looking back, I don’t remember my dad even being involved, despite the fact that it was his supposed wrath I was cowering from. I guess as a very young child, at least in my experience, doing the right thing is motivated more by fear of punishment than any thing else; but then, around the age of four, while fear-of-punishment may still rule the day, the need to please others enters the mix and fear-of-disappointing often takes over as the main motivator. In other words, the thought of deserving a spanking is far worse than the actual pain of the spanking. That’s when your dad says (and you believe him), “Son, this is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you,” right before the one-two-three-four on your backside.

Then as you get older, you find that guilt has its hands in everything, the thief that keeps on giving. Some people spend their lives running from it, some people seek it out like crack addicts. Either way, it only gets more prickly and perverse the older you get. And what may previously have been an overwhelming regret for you, can now be used as a powerful emotional leverage on others…such as my poor mother…every time I tell the peeing story…or my daughter…the next time the subject of the couch comes up…or on us, for shamelessly unloading our old furniture on our kids and making them think it was their idea.