25 October 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Embracing the Guilt

Guilt. . . it sounds like such a bad word. But maybe we should start to look at it a little more lovingly. It’s our morals, our values, and our hopes for the future rising up within us to remind us what we believe in. HOW we present those beliefs, and our ability to express our feelings without “forcing” guilt on someone, is important to consider and will significantly impact the reaction of those around us (and that is something I need to continually remind myself).But trying to avoid all guilt might be just as harmful. I say, bring on the guilt! If we DON’T, our planet and our future are in trouble!

Have you ever been in a situation where someone in the room makes a statement that they are about to go do something “responsible” (sort through the recycling at the end of a party, saying no to the dessert offering, etc.) and, when you see they have made this choice and you haven’t you say, “What, are you trying to make me feel guilty?!”?

Is feeling guilty when we do something we know is bad for the environment, bad for ourselves, or irresponsible a bad thing? We often tiptoe around our real thoughts or intentions, worried that we might make others feel guilty about their actions if we state our own choices. At PEPY, we pride ourselves in having a group of team members who are self-reflective and striving to improve themselves as well as the organization. How to regulate/enforce this “self/world improvement” ethic is a touchy matter. Do we set rules saying people have to recycle? Put a ban on drinking in rural areas of the country where it is most frowned on? Which things should be optional practices that are self-regulated, and which should be “rules”?

This conflict of organization vs self-imposed governance around social behaviors has been a topic of many heated debates on our team, with opinions varied on what should be regulated, how judgments and criticism are presented, and what role guilt should or shouldn’t play in our behavioral changes. As a result, we have realized that the ability or willingness of an individual even to enter into debates about their social/environmental/cultural interactions both within and outside of the workplace are what is most required on our team. We don’t have to all agree, but we have to be willing and open to discussing these issues.

One of the discussions we have had at PEPY is how identifying wasteful or environmentally un-sustainable practices, in which we and others enjoy partaking, can cause that person to feel guilty. An example is that, a few years ago when we lived in Phnom Penh, our team would often get take-out food delivered. These meals would typically come in Styrofoam containers and often times the restaurant delivering the food was only a few minutes’ walk down the road. The argument was: if we imposed a rule, or frowned upon taking Styrofoam take-out, it would “make other people feel guilty.”

Is that ok?

I do things that I know are the wrong choice for the planet all the time: I buy more things than I need, I have taken more than a few flights this year to places to which I could have traveled over land, I am really bad a taking the time to sort through my trash, and when it comes to my own personal well-being, it is rare that I say no to dessert. Every now and then, I too get delivery knowing that it will probably come in Styrofoam. Do I feel guilty when I do that? TOTALLY! There was a time, though, when I wouldn’t feel guilty at all getting delivery on a regular basis, but it wasn’t until someone, perhaps a teacher or a parent, pointed out the waste produced from the take-out boxes that I began to feel guilty if was too lazy to walk to a restaurant and chose take-out instead. That guilt keeps my desire to get delivery every time it rains all day or my desire to take a flight versus a bus in check BECAUSE I feel guilty and recognize it is wrong. Isn’t guilt our conscience’s way of reminding us when we are doing something we don’t fully believe in?

We can’t and shouldn’t go through life feeling guilty all the time. And yes, we are all going to make choices, probably every single day,  that are not the most responsible/sustainable. But does trying to avoid the guilt that might come with some of those actions mean we are trying to pretend that those things aren’t wrong?

So the next time a friend says no thanks to the dessert option because she is “trying to eat healthier” or when someone tells me he is taking the bus rather than a flight, I will try to avoid saying, “Stop trying to make me feel guilty!” No one can “make me feel guilty” – that is something only I can control on my own, and I’m going to embrace it. Bring on the guilt. . . why? Because I want to have an internal meter reminding me which actions fall within or outside of my preferences and beliefs, and because my mom isn’t there yelling to remind me to turn off the light when I leave a room now that I’m grown up. I’ve got to do that myself. It’s my choice to feel a bit guilty as I go to bed knowing there is a light on downstairs or guilt myself into getting up to turn it off.

So bring on the guilt, and let’s remind ourselves that if irresponsible choices cause us to feel guilty, then that is just our internal alarm helping us become the people we want to be.