Recovery, Spirituality

Guilty as charged


When a jury smacks down that verdict upon the accused, their life is altered forever. For whatever their sentence is to be- a slap on the wrist or a life in prison- they are still forever marred by the label of guilt.

Of course we all know about the other stamp of guilt – the one we impose upon ourselves. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t beat themselves up for something they should have done or wish they had the strength to do (or not do) and the weight of that guilt is a unique prison all its own. How many times – today alone – have you berated yourself for not cleaning the bathroom, not paying enough attention to the kids, eating that 3rd slice of pizza…

I went to church yesterday for the first time in years. Granted it was a non-denominational Christian service with an uplifting message and beautiful music; but don’t think for a second that it didn’t bring back memories of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Upstate NY and discomfort of those pews and kneelers. It took me years to identify that free-floating feeling of ickiness that church and its subsequent religious classes stamped me with. All I knew was that something was wrong, fundamentally wrong with me, and that God knew it. I was terrified by stories of martyred saints and the graphic illustrations of the Passion but was also fascinated by them, further fueling the flames my guilt. The scorn from my Grandmother that I was selfish and that I was praying without devotion (a big word for a 6 year old) left me with a perceived inadequacy in God’s eyes, and by 13 I was convinced I was bound for Hell. Little did I know at the time that the hell I was bound for was the next 20 years of spiritual bankruptcy with which I led my life.

I dropped church altogether when I was old enough to put my foot down with my parents. My mom still pressed me to join in Sunday Mass when home from college, but I protested unmercifully. If God made me feel so awful, why would I go hang out with him when I could be sleeping off the party the night before? I certainly wasn’t going to relive the guilt by spiritually flogging myself for my transgressions- no, alcohol took care of those for me. But when I couldn’t drink away the remorse completely and the denial wasn’t opaque enough, I had to change. Like Tori Amos says “I’ve got enough guilt to start my own religion.”

This isn’t a post about finding God or repenting my hedonistic ways… it’s about relief. You see, I believe that when we become old enough to take responsibility, guilt is a decision. We all have a choice of the way we want to live and the things which which we find acceptable. It’s when we violate our own chosen values that we succumb to guilt. First we have to chose to release ourselves from the bondage of the guilt that DOES NOT BELONG TO US. All that churchiness that I didn’t choose for myself has no jurisdiction in the venue of my life, because it’s not mine. I’ve come to forgive those who unknowingly caused me grief and release them from blame – they didn’t know any better than I did. Next I had to choose what was acceptable behavior for me (the trick here is to not impose this choice on anyone else, lest we just pass on the guilt). I do fall short of this ideal now and again, and the guilt can become overwhelming.  They key for me was to stop amending my values to match my behavior and start amending behavior to match my values.

Take a look at those times that you feel that inescapable pang of “I should have [insert action here]” and find out if those values belong to you, or if that’s just someone else’s shit. Chances are, your true nature is to be much easier on yourself than your old mental patterns would allow you to be. Then MAKE THE CHANGE. Choose okayness. Choose good-enoughness. Ignore the voice in your head that says you are a terrible homemaker if you pay someone to clean your house. Squash the demon inside that calls you fat when you indulge in a slice of cake at your child’s birthday party.

The service I attended Sunday was really uplifting; a complete change from the guilt-inducing terrorfests I engaged in as a child. Still, I wondered as I was sitting there: “Does this count?” Even as I was enjoying the music and the message I was still checking off the religious to-do list that was ingrained in me. Progress not perfection, right? So I decided that yes… it did indeed count. That was my guilt-relieving choice for the day. Oh wait – I made one more that day too – a man I respect very much once told me that “sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap.” So I did.


  1. AW

    Sara – great topic. I think examining ourselves is the most difficult as well as one of the most rewarding tasks we can tackle. As a practicing Catholic, I believe an intimate relationship with our conscience is just what God intended!

  2. Amy R

    I grew up Catholic. My husband and I attend First Christian Church (non-denominational). My Mom thought she failed. It is interesting that as she has gone through lung cancer she looks to me as the one that speaks truth to her. Ironic, but good.

  3. Trefom

    Someday when we have time, I’ll share a story of guilt with you that nearly caused me to end it all. This crazy agnostic nearly let it win. Rough times.

  4. Jon

    Guilt is an excellent way to control others though, which often becomes the goal of religious establishment. I suffered through some second-hand guilt by attending a Catholic high-school as a non-believer. Powerful stuff.

    Great writing! Keep up the good work.


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