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I recently read a book review that discussed moral consistency in regards to our interactions with animals.  You know, such as how I’m a vegetarian, but I kill crickets.

The same week, my cousin sent me a New York Times article about guilt.  It follows several environmentalists — people who have dedicated their entire being to doing right by the environment — yet what works for them in certain situations contradicts their overall message.

For instance, one has eliminated all wasteful items from their life, such as one-time water bottles, and uses recycled materials but also uses disposable diapers. Why?  Because the cloth diapers they’ve tried leak, and they found that disposables are what works with their child.

Another is a green designer, but his profession requires him to constantly change his house in order to give other people ideas.  For photo shoots, he rents an SUV to shlep around items, and in between, he continues to use the SUV because time is tight and he can’t afford to give up the time to rent a different car.

And it sort of comes back to the idea that no matter how “well” we live our lives and try to stick by our numerous ideologies, inevitably, since all things are connected, we’re messing up something else.

A case in point, the twins wanted to walk to this event for Health Day because they had been told to walk to the event — walking is good.  I explained that walking is good when your legs are a little longer and you can walk at a good clip.  But we would have been trading sleep (one building block of health) for exercise (a different building block of health) in order to fulfill what someone else said was good to do.

They felt this tremendous guilt about it as we headed to the event (I, for one, did not.  Okay, I did.  But only because they kept bringing it up.)  We weren’t “healthy enough” because we hadn’t fulfilled this aspect of Health Day.  Somehow, getting the requisite amount of sleep and eating a healthy breakfast didn’t count in their mind because we had been given this message of walk, walk, walk (and seriously, we received a handout, an email, and a phone call reminding us to walk to the event.  They went a little overboard).

There are some who would scoff at the people in this article or my kids and say that they have no right to feel guilty.  They’ve made a choice, and they should own it and move on or change it.

In the same way that I don’t believe we should put ideologies before people, I don’t know how much we should put ideologies before ourselves.  There obviously needs to be a line or ideologies become pointless.  But where do we set that line?  Can you use disposable diapers and still be an environmentalist?  Can you wear leather and be a vegetarian for compassionate reasons?

And can’t we still feel guilt in stepping over that line, even if the line needs to be drawn for sanity’s sake?  Isn’t expressing guilt a healthy response much in the same way sneezing is when dust enters our nose?  It’s a way of cleansing out the conscience. (And yes, it can get carried too far when it turns into self-flagellation.)

Guilt doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t have made the same choice over and over again, but our psychological discomfort is a nod towards what we wish could be.  Which is why I think telling people not to feel guilty or that they don’t deserve to feel guilty is sort of as helpful as that “just relax” mentality within infertility.  How is it helpful to tell someone that they don’t deserve to have an emotional response?

And at that end, does anyone deserve to feel guilty?  If you look through the comments on the post, you’d see there are a bunch of people who think that no, people don’t deserve to feel guilty.  Or, more accurately, they don’t believe the people in the article should be allowed to feel guilty.  I’m sure the commenters have felt guilt in their lives, but when they felt it, it was perfectly reasonable.  (On second thought, you might want to skip the comments.  A lot of people seemed to miss the point and only focused on cloth vs. disposable diapers.)

Guilt, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “self-reproach, as for inadequacy.”  And that pretty much sums up the feeling.  That shame, or self-reproach, for feeling that you fell short somehow.  I’ve often felt this way over things that were either wholly out of my control, or were technically within my control if we wanted to do something detrimental for the gain (for instance, wake up early and skip breakfast in order to walk to Health Day).

I felt guilt over infertility and over not carrying the twins to term.  Yes, I felt regret too, but moreover, I felt that shame for feeling inadequate.  I felt shame for losing those other pregnancies, for costing us so much money in order to reach parenthood, for pulling us through the emotional wreckage.  I felt shame over the way my body created problems for the twins.  Do I think this guilt is healthy?  No, but I’m going to feel it (and to deny it would be unhealthy), and therefore, talking about it is like a conscience sneeze, blowing debris out of the body.

So there you have it.


1 mash { 10.14.10 at 8:56 am }

I’ve been a vegetarian for 5 years, and recently started eating a tiny bit of chicken once a week. Eating a tiny bit of chicken once a week is better than eating meat all day every day. And I realised I was being unrealistic in order to fit in with this label I had given myself, “vegetarian”.

It’s crazy to have to drastically change who you are, in order to fit under a label, when all you really have is this aspiration to improve your way of doing things.

Just because you recycle stuff, shouldn’t mean that people are justified in attacking you, for instance, because you maybe have a lightbulb in your house that isn’t energy efficient.

Making a small change is better than making no change. We should all be encouraged to make the changes we can, and not made to feel guilty about the things that don’t fit into people’s definitions and categories!

2 Autism Mom Rising { 10.14.10 at 9:33 am }

Great nuanced post. The diaper issue is interesting. I studied it extensively when I was making the decision back in 2001. The EPA had done an extensive study showing that whether or not using cloth or disposabled is best depends on where on lives. In places like New Jersey where landfill space is tight, but they have no water shortage problems it is more eco-friendly to use cloth. However, in a place like Arizona where they have water shortage issues, but landfill space is okay, clearly disposable is the lesser of two evils. I happened to live in a place where water and landfill space is abundant, so I chose cloth most of the time.

I run into this with my commitment to shop at locally owned businesses. My son takes a lot of medications. The local pharmacy was lovely, but closed on Sundays and closed early in the evenings. So many times I found myself in a fix – not good when you are talking seizure meds. Walgreens, on the other hand, also had great service- but better hours – Sunday hours. So I switched. I don’t feel bad about it because medication is a serious part of our routine and I’m going to go where the service is best. Period.

3 serenity { 10.14.10 at 9:40 am }

“No, but I’m going to feel it (and to deny it would be unhealthy), and therefore, talking about it is like a conscience sneeze, blowing debris out of the body.”

Yes, exactly. Just because you SHOULDN’T feel guilty over something in which you had no or limited control, doesn’t mean it’s wrong to feel it. Feel it, acknowledge it, get rid of it.

For what it’s worth, you’re not alone. I have feelings of guilt and failure daily.


4 a { 10.14.10 at 9:53 am }

I’m not much for guilt – if I feel it at all, it’s momentary and not at all long term. I try to make the best decisions based on the information I have at the time. Sure, I could have done something else, but would it have ended in any better result? I’ll never know. But, I also don’t stew on decisions too much either.

I don’t think it’s hypocritical to eat meat and still be concerned with animal welfare. I could never be a vegetarian anyway, because lately, almost all fruits and vegetables make my mouth itch. I don’t think it’s hypocritical to be environmentally conscious and still use plastic/disposable diapers/etc. We use lights in our house for maybe 3 hours/day (in winter, unless it’s cloudy) and our heat is kept low and our air conditioning is set high. We recycle everything we can.

So, in thinking about all of these things, I guess I would say that I don’t feel guilty about much because I don’t attach myself to ideals and goals that are not possible for me to obtain. I do the best I can with what I have.

Now I have to go read that guilt article and see if my view changes.

5 a { 10.14.10 at 10:21 am }

Re: other people’s guilt. Ha! I sympathize with them for the energy spent on such an emotion, but I recognize that I can’t do anything to alleviate it. There are times when people feel guilty because they think they’ve done something to cause you pain or hardship. In those circumstances, I think it’s ok to tell them not to feel guilty because the outcome was not what they were imagining. I often respond to guilt proclamations with “well, what else could you have done?” and the answer is usually “Nothing.”

I kind of feel like the people in the article were apologizing for not living in a grass hut with no plumbing or electricity…and that’s unrealistic to me. I also feel that the rabid environmentalists don’t want to preserve the environment; they want to eliminate all the people who don’t do things the way they do (much like the rabid lactivists and rabid intactivists).

Anyway, guilt (to me) is only useful if it changes your worldview and way of doing things.

6 Cherish { 10.14.10 at 12:28 pm }

Awesome post! We’re so often told not to judge others but I think we need to also work on not judging ourselves. I have a million examples on my mind because this is something I actively work at and struggle with – judging myself and feeling guilty. I think we really just need to do the best we reasonably can and back off of ourselves and others.

7 loribeth { 10.14.10 at 1:49 pm }

This post made me think of the guilt I feel when people ask or even just imply that we could have/should have adopted or plowed on with fertility treatments instead of stopping & resolving to live childfree.

I like what Mash said at the outset, about making a small change being better than making no change at all. We’re all human, and while we all have certain ideals we’d like to achieve, we’re all capable of doing only so much, depending on the time, money & other resources we have available to support us. What you’re capable of doing might not be what I’m capable of doing — but I think that most of us do the best we can under the circumstances with the information & resources available to us at the time. I wish more people would realize that & cut others (& themselves) some slack.

8 Justine { 10.14.10 at 1:49 pm }

I don’t think any of us are perfect … so the best we can do is live our values to the extent possible, given our means and resources. I’m committed to building a sustainable world, but I’m going to use disposables because I’m going to be taking this child to work with some frequency, and it’s just not practical to use cloth. But I recycle and reuse, I eat (mostly) vegetarian, I belong to a CSA … so I feel like I’m making a dent.

9 Nelly { 10.14.10 at 1:53 pm }

So true! I was raised in a household where guilt was the way to parent and I struggle with this daily, if not each minute of my life. However, age has some benefits! Seems like the older I get, the less guilty about everything I feel (or maybe the less I give a damn). We need to learn to “forgive” ourselves for not being perfect. We do the best we can.

10 Stolen Eggs { 10.14.10 at 2:28 pm }

Very thought-provoking post. But I would argue that every choice has cost, no matter how green it may seem on the surface. For example, using cloth diapers does prevent the heap of disposables in the landfill. But cleaning cloth diapers requires A LOT of water. And a true environmentalist would want to also conserve water. So it really comes down to which is more important to you: landfills or water conservation?
This is just one example but I think most decisions are like this one. Some options may seem green but there’s probably another side to the coin. Short of moving to a hut in the woods and living purely off the land I think everything is a trade off and it’s a personal decision about which things you place at a higher level of importance. Because of that, there’s no reason to feel guilty over one decision (unless you’re going to feel guilty ALL the time for all your decisions).

11 Kir { 10.14.10 at 2:30 pm }

well I’m Catholic and a woman, so yes GUILT is a daily part of my life. In fact this week, I am feeling it a lot. I know that a layoff is coming here at work and I am keeping my job, and I have feelings of gratitude that I have a job in this recession and then feelings of guilt about others losing theirs. It’s constant. However, I never felt any guilt about not breastfeeding or cloth diapers…

I have more guilt about not making “better witches” for daycare or not doing a better job of recycling magazines.

but guilt is a daily if not moment to moment part of my life…and I know that I shouldn’t feel that way. I say “I’m sorry” about 100 times a day, so much so that John has told me that he’s not talking to me until I stop apologizing for EVERYTHING to Everybody.

No, I don’t think that others should feel guilty about things, but I definately don’t take my own advice.


12 Eve { 10.14.10 at 2:37 pm }

We are all hyprocrites, every last one of us. It is knitted into our DNA…and thus is guilt, that inner authority figure that tells us we should not do/feel/think the we that we do.

I have guilt. Guilt for losing a twin, guilt for choosing IVF knowing I had previous pregnancy complications, guilt for not being able to carry a ‘normal’ pregnancy, guilt for being a working mother.

I especially have guilt at finding myself overwhelmed and tired in the reality of mothering two wonderful children after a long infertility battle to do just that.

But most days, most days, I let it go. I am at my core selfish/lazy/hyprocritical/deceptive and the like…it’s a wonder that I’m able to fight it most days as well as I do (and that goes for the lot of us).

13 HereWeGoAJen { 10.14.10 at 3:38 pm }

I’m pretty good at not feeling guilt. I mean, obviously, sometimes I do. But mostly I recognize that I am doing the best I can with the resources I have.

14 TasIVFer { 10.14.10 at 7:39 pm }

I thought this was gorgeously written. Often we label an emotion as being ‘wrong’ without embracing the positive aspects of it – a theme I’ve seen in a recent post on Justine’s blog (http://ahalfbakedlife.blogspot.com/) lately too.

Guilt can be the flip side of having a conscience, which isn’t a bad thing, so how can guilt be entirely bad?

15 B { 10.15.10 at 1:07 am }

Hey Mel

I’ve come to view the guilt you feel about things out of your control (like your body failing you or your baby dying) as a way of wrestling back a feeling of control for yourself. It feels a bit different to other guilt as well, it has a despairing quality rather than a propelling quality.

I’m sure many feel guilty over competing priorities. For me, feeling bad for doing a bad (or not as a good as normal) job teaching when I’m doing an IVF cycle. I feel sorry for the kids who have to go through me being crabby and less patient, again. If you confess this to someone they argue with you about it, but it’s niave to believe that deeply personal decisions (such as trying to build a family) do not effect those around us and we should at least try to be mindful of that, and make some acoomodations for it, even if we wouldn’t change that decision.

In the same vein, I would ask those who are close to me and pregnant or with young babies to be mindful of the effect that has on me, even though their decision to have a (another) child has nothing to do with me, and I don’t ask for them to feel guilty. I just want them to take a look from my point of view from time to time.

16 stephanie { 10.15.10 at 4:53 am }

I’ve always seen guilt as a “tap on the shoulder,” if you will. An inward sense that something might be going against something I hold to be important or dear. I find it very useful and would not want to be rid of it. Rather, it seems more important to manage it. It is my first inclination that a a behavior/idea/thought/action should maybe be incorporated into my life. I assess, make a decision and then move on. If something keeps recropping up as a guilty feeling, I know I need to reassess and maybe take it more seriously. Guilt can be useful if seen as one of the first steps in a line of inquiry and review. I think it has the potential to become harmful when it festers or remains unacted upon.

I lived as a vegetarian since I was about 14 years old. At 34, for a number of reasons that made sense to me, I began eating meat again. When guilt crops up – as it is wont to do from time to time – I try to figure out what it is trying to tell me and then take it from there. I also work out of the home and have a toddler. When isn’t that a recipe for some element of guilt. But again, I just try to figure out what it is telling me. I don’t always get perfect resolution and sometimes I have to take my lessons learned with a massive spoonful of sugar to get it down (e.g. no, we can’t afford to have me work part-time), but I don’t fault the feelings of guilt. They are a useful indicator of a sometimes unrecognized inner turmoil.

17 Bea { 10.15.10 at 11:14 pm }

I don’t know that I’m terribly coherent today. So I’m not sure if this aligns with what you’re getting at. But.

Guilt is a useful thing, not to be dismissed automatically. It ought to make us look closer at our decisions (even in hindsight) and really ask whether that was the best choice we could have made. Or whether it’s the choice we would make again, knowing what we know now. This is part of how we learn and grow.

Saying that someone else shouldn’t feel guilty… well, I don’t see the sense in that. If someone feels guilty, then frankly, they probably should feel guilty. They should take that guilt and examine it, and understand it. Then hopefully they will be able to do as you say some people suggest is the final answer – either affirm their decision and move on with a clean conscience, or change something, or resolve to do it better next time. (In the end, that is an ideal reaction.) And sometimes you just have to find a way to live with the regret.

But quite often there’s an element of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and the lingering guilt is an acknowledgement that it wasn’t a perfect solution because it’s not an ideal world, but it’s really good to acknowledge that. Humbling. Etc.


18 mrs spock { 10.16.10 at 11:20 am }

We started our son in cloth diapers and have been happy with them- but since the neuromuscular disease with its fatigue started, and I’ve added a pregnancy to that, we use disposables a couple times a day to cut down the laundry burden on my husband. the poor man is doing most of the physical tasks in the house, and even with the new maid service twice a month, being the well spouse who takes on those burdens has been no picnic. It can affect our marriage. So we compromise. Yes, I feel guilty, but what can I say- having a major illness is not the most frugal or environmentally friendly thing in the world- but it isn’t something I chose or brought on myself. Just like you and the IF and premature birth. Guilt implies choice. We don’t always have that.

19 luna { 10.17.10 at 12:58 am }

I think there are so many little hypocrasies but really in the end everyone has to live with their own choices. I don’t buy in to the kind of guilt that others would make me feel for my decisions — only I have the right to make myself feel guilty.

on the diaper issue, it’s interesting. we used cloth for nearly a year and disposables at night to help keep her dry (to help with a rash), then started using them for day trips and travel. and yes, the cloth leaked a LOT and required a TON of water in our drought impacted state. (and if you use a service, they use bleach.) but I found disposables that are entirely biodegradable and compostable, so I could easily live with the switch.

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