Is There Some Good In Feeling Guilty?

by Books | Our Favorite Catholic Books To Read, Family

My mom Rosie, may she rest in peace, worked well into her 90’s.  It certainly is impressive, isn’t it?  Yes indeed.  Almost until the day she died, mom was working as a full-time travel agent, for guilt trips that is.  

 These comments, which of course are fun loving jokes about my precious Mother, really do grab people’s attention.  I know because I have been sharing them for years during a popular presentation of mine, “Ten Things I’ve Learned about Living a Godly Life.”  It is the presentation on which my latest book, “Everything’s Coming Up Rosie; Ten Things My Feisty Italian American Mom Taught Me about Living a Godly Life is based.   It might take a second or two for the comments to sink in but once they do, folks at parish retreats or women’s conferences are soon nodding their heads, laughing, and often sharing with me later, that my words had them thinking of funny guilt-related mom stories of their own. 

 Let me say that before going public with the guilt trip gig, Rosie and I shared many a lighthearted moment recalling her wise, as well as sometimes wacky ways of trying to get her children’s attention. Some of my most precious memories of my mom are based on those last few months before she passed away in 2020. We would have late afternoon chats filled with lots of chuckles.  She would remind me how I was difficult even before I came out of the womb. “I carried you through the hottest summer of the 20th century,” or “summa” as she would say, in her strong East Coast accent.  Apparently, the heatwave to be all heatwaves, a record breaker, occurred the summer I was born, and there was never another one like it since.  Then I would remind her just how proficient she had become at using whatever means she could, to try and knock some sense into me and my two older sisters. And yes, as obvious from her heatwave comment, often good old fashioned guilt trips were at the top of her list of disciplinary tactics.

Interestingly enough, very rarely have I had people come up to me after this particular talk where I address, among other things, the topic of guilt, explaining that they were scarred for life.  They didn’t insist their childhood was greatly lacking somehow, because their mother or father made them feel a twinge of sorrow or guilt now and then.  Instead, they share their memories joyfully expressing gratitude for their parents’ approach.  It may have taken them years to realize it but at some point, they came to understand, an occasional dose of guilt had an impact. Perhaps it’s because they’ve raised or are raising their own children, that their parents were applying it out of love and concern, hoping to prevent them from doing something they just might regret down the road.  There are consequences to our actions and thinking about the fallout can sometimes stop one from falling in the first place. 

 And this is why I think it’s worth it to revisit the topic of guilt and maybe even give it a second chance, and why I re-examined it in Everything’s Coming Up Rosie.” We’re not talking about the kind of guilt that can truly do damage, sometimes to the point of immobilizing people keeping them stuck in a terrible state; not being able to move beyond a mistake or to forgive themselves, even after receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As St. Paul reminds us in Romans 8:1, “there is therefore now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”   If we have a contrite heart and confess our sins, we are forgiven, and need to let go of the guilt that may have been attached to a particular sin.  I don’t believe Moms of my mother’s generation, were out to bury us in a kind of heavy burdening guilt.  Instead, the more I think and pray about the life’s lessons, passed on by Rosie, I believe she and other parents or caregivers liker her wanted us to gain a sense of responsibility, a responsibility in our relationships first and foremost with God and then with others.  Being in a relationship requires caring about someone other than ourselves and if we do care, we will be conscience that what we do can impact others positively or negatively.  We don’t want to hurt those we love or care about.  We shouldn’t want to embarrass them in any way.  

In the 2nd chapter of “Everything’s Coming Up Rosie, I highlight an example of this kind of thought process, by examining one of my mother’s favorite sayings, “Rememba (remember) the Blessed Mutha (Mother) Is Watching You.”  Rosie had a very deep devotion to the Blessed Mother.  She truly felt the Blessed Mother was keeping a close eye on her and her family.  A case in point would be the explosion in our Jersey City apartment.  Two people died in that gas explosion.  The building was split in two.  Somehow our entire family escaped without a scratch and even most of our belongings were able to be recovered including a beautiful statue of our Blessed Mother.  No wonder Rosie felt the Blessed Mother was truly watching us and looking out for us.  Most of the time, I heard that statement as I was heading out on a date or getting ready to head back to college.  Having grown up in a strong Catholic family, I also came to know and love our Blessed Mother, thanks to my parent’s example.  So, yes, those words, maybe not always, but often enough did make me stop and think about my actions.  Imagine trying to pull any funny stuff with those words planted securely in your mind? Which is why, although she never earned a college degree in theology, Rosie was quite smart.  I did not want to disappoint my earthly mother or my heavenly mother.  

The American Psychological Association, hardly a conservative group, has actually backed Rosie up in her style of parenting.  As I point out, the APA, has published more than one study on how remorse, guilt, and shame can affect us. According to an article in Psychology Today recalling uncomfortable feelings associated with shameful or wrongful actions, makes a difference. 

Shame is usually considered a much more toxic and damaging emotion than guilt, one that can do significant damage to a person’s self-esteem and psychological health. Yet, it also seems as though shame can also contribute to a positive psychological reaction. -a strong motivation to change.” The Surprising Upside of Guilt and Shame | Psychology Today

And if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend, taking a close look at the new advisory from the United States Surgeon General.   Earlier this month Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on what he calls an “epidemic of loneliness” sweeping the nation. New Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States | HHS.gov Apparently Murthy, although he didn’t come out and say this directly,  is hoping that more Americans will feel at least a little bit of shame, remorse, or guilt about our self-centeredness or why else would he point to what on the surface seems like such simple, common-sense solutions, to solving the loneliness crisis including:

  • Answering a phone call from a friend.
  • Inviting someone over to share a meal.
  • Listening and be present during conversations.
  • Seeking out opportunities to serve others.

His report reads like the Golden Rule.  His suggestions are Christianity 101. But are so far gone in this country and this world in terms of turning in on ourselves, doing only what we want to do whenever and with whomever, that we need reminders in the form of very serious statements to treat each other kindly?  Not too many people out there feel guilty or remorseful if we must be told about it in an official government notice.  It’s common sense and common decency, but obviously they’re not so common anymore.  Where is our sense of duty and concern for our fellow human beings when we must be reminded in a major health warning to “be present” to others.  When someone is in the room, we have to been told  as a nation, to put down the phone and talk to them face to face.  How did volunteering at a soup kitchen, offering to drive someone to Mass, or pick up a few things at the store for them, or as Murthy explains, “seek out opportunities to serve others”, become such a foreign concept?

Rosie also made me think twice when she would tell me emphatically as I explain in Chapter 5 of the book, to “go ride your bike.”  It may sound cliché, but my mother met it and then some.  The response usually came after I had been home from school on summer break and within days was complaining about getting bored.  And while we were an average middle-class family, not well off by any means, me and my sisters had plenty of toys and every few years, new shiny bikes. My mother reminded me that growing up in a family of ten during the depression having a bike, even one bike to share, was just not possible.  Her summer days in Jersey City were made up of splashing around in the street when the fire department opened the fire hydrants for the inner-city children.  Or hanging out on the stoop, (front porch) with her girlfriends.  There were lots of games of jump rope and kick the can, but bikes, not a chance.  Her quick and strong response to my boredom would stop me in my tracks and make me think about what it must have been like for my mom growing up in a poor immigrant family.  And yes, I can recall feeling a twinge of guilt after my whining.  You better believe I hopped on that bike. 

Whether it’s guilt, remorse, our conscience, or how about the Holy Spirit nudging us to go deeper and go beyond our own wants, and desires, as that old saying goes, like chicken soup, it can’t hurt and It  just might be the little nudge we need to grow deeper in our faith and appreciate the countless gifts God has given us, especially our moms. 

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