I’m reading Freud, and he’s telling me that guilt is essentially the bane of civilization. People hate Freud, he says all that stuff about boys wanting to sleep with their mothers and all that stuff about ego, but I’m reading this shit about guilt, and he’s got me hooked, I have to keep going.
He talks about guilt being an individual’s aggression being directed inward, and that it is to a response to an external authority. Makes sense to me, I mean, if I’m “feeling bad” about something I did, it’s usually because I’m thinking about what another person would think of me if they knew what I did. Or it’s because I feel like I’m being censured or punished for something I did. Doesn’t matter if the punisher is my dad, my dead mom, my best friends, a higher power, that bug I stepped on, I just feel a sense of wrong, and inwardly I punish myself for it.
Punish might be a strong word. I’m not whipping myself or anything, but I end up in a state of unhappiness until I feel like I’ve done something to remove my guilt or something else comes along to make me forget about it. And that’s when I have to start thinking about what my past couple of years have been like.
Actually, before we get there, I should reflect on how my past couple of weeks have been. They’ve been amazing. I haven’t been this happy in such a long time. And it’s not like I’m in some paradise, I mean, I’m at an elite university taking intensive rhetoric and theory classes and doing extensive amounts of research during my summer. I’m always doing something. But for the first time, I feel fulfilled in what I’m doing. I feel like I’m getting shit done. And I feel OK when I don’t get shit done. I may have slip-ups or tensions with people or problems, but they’re not hard to manage. I don’t really feel as burdened as I do when I’m at Oberlin.
And then I had to stop and think. Burdened. What does that even mean? Burdened with what? Who is giving me the burden? And I wonder if I mean guilt when I say burdened. I don’t feel guilty all the time.
“But (An)T(h)ony,” you may ask, “why would you feel guilty? You’re so amazing.” And to that I say “Thank you, I know.” But sometimes I don’t know why I feel guilty, not until after I’m able to leave a situation and reflect on it. And then I realize that what I was feeling was guilt. I would feel guilty about “not showing up” for different events. I would feel guilty for thinking thoughts and possibly saying things that did not go with the status quo. I would feel guilty for being myself if I was worried that “myself” would not be received well.
At Oberlin, you may hear a lot of people talk about how they “have to be accountable to x.” X could be their friends, their social groups, their forms of activism, their families, maybe even themselves. Sometimes I wonder if that phrase functions as a form of guilt. If you don’t do something, if you don’t show up, then “you weren’t being accountable.” And it’s odd to me, because being accountable, in my opinion, is a bit more conceptual than people take it to be at Oberlin. You can be “accountable” in all sorts of ways that don’t involve physically being somewhere. You can be “accountable”, and the individuals/groups/institutions that you are “accountable” to may not even care that you’re doing that shit. But whenever I hear people at Oberlin say that, it’s as if there’s a threat that if they aren’t accountable, they will be punished or something.
This past semester of atrocity, I was in a Theater class that was functioning as a play. And it was the week of the opening, and everyone was extremely stressed, because we had not spent that much time actually putting the play together. Tensions were extremely high and people were swearing at each other, it was kind of a shit show. I had another class directly after this Theater class, and I decided one day to stay after class and rehearse some lines with my peers so that my part in the show wouldn’t be a hot mess. That meant that I skipped the other class. I was close with the teacher from said other class, and she informed me that she was not really pleased that I had skipped her class. Generally, having an authority say something like that to me arouses a huge amount of guilt. I’m such a people pleaser, for a variety of reasons, and here is one authority figure, who I respect immensely, telling me that they did not like my actions. And it didn’t matter what my reasons were because in some way, shape, or form, it could easily be argued that I shouldn’t have skipped her class What I said to her was “Well, I knew that I wanted to not have a terrible show, and that I wanted to make sure that my parts in the play were good, so I prioritized the show over you. It may have been irresponsible, but I did it and it’s over.” She processed that as we walked out of the building together and said “Well, I wouldn’t say it was irresponsible…”
The idea of talking to someone like that would have not even entered my mind when I was younger. I was raised in a very conservative Christian home, and with a lot of conservative religions comes a lot of guilt, as my Jewish and Catholic friends will tell you. Conservative religious practices are the epitome of following a dogmatic hierarchy, obedience to those above you is law. And any time you are not obedient, you should feel guilty, because you are a sinner. You would then need to repent and cleanse yourself of your guilt. The language is that strong, it sometimes bothers my friends when I talk like that, usually because they’re not used to it.
And that’s the thing. When I’m at Oberlin, I’m not around that many people raised in conservative religious environments. It makes their extreme guilt even more interesting to me, because I wonder what they feel guilty about. It’s kind of like they’ve made their own social groups and social work their God, and not doing what those groups and what that work tells you to do is akin to being a disobedient child. Then they feel guilty.
I’ve seen a lot of guilt at Oberlin. White guilt, and not just from white students, but also from students of color who feel like they’ve been whitewashed. Professors who feel like they’re failing their students. Cis students who don’t feel like they’re being good allies to their trans* friends. Able-bodied people when they’re forced to remember that they are not disabled. The list actually goes on and on. But the end result is a lot of guilt. And a lot of unhappiness. As if all of these people are needing to all be accountable to each other at every moment of every day, without even feeling like they can just fuck up and not be rebuked for it. Some personalities can handle that. Not all. Some people feel the need to lash out against it, because it drives them crazy. Some people leave, and talk about how Oberlin is such a “toxic” place. Maybe the guilt is making them sick.
I left Oberlin after staying there for three years, not leaving ever since I moved to Oberlin, OH. I’m back home in Chicago, and I work just as hard as I did back at Oberlin. But I don’t feel guilty. And I’m happy.