Spectator | Guilty as charged | india | Hindustan Times
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Spectator | Guilty as charged

Why do we feel guilty about so many things and so much of the time?

india Updated: Feb 06, 2010 19:34 IST
Seema Goswami

I don’t know about you, but the primary emotion I seem to experience these days is guilt. It’s the first emotion that registers when I wake up in the morning and the last nagging thought as I drop off to sleep at the end of a long day. No matter how hard I try to avoid that sinking feeling that tells me I have messed up, it comes right back and bites me in the ankle like a particularly pesky terrier.

Let’s take today. I’ve just about made it into mid-afternoon and I’m already feeling guilty on about half a dozen counts.

Was it really such a good idea to lie in for an extra half an hour in the morning? Shouldn’t I have got out of bed in time to do my yoga stretches? Was the buttered toast at breakfast a good idea? Wouldn’t a green chutney spread have been healthier? Or should I have just stuck to some fresh fruit? Why didn’t I stop to slather on the sun-block before I left the house? Are these heels the best thing for my back? Why do I always leave writing my column to the last possible minute? Why am I checking my


page when I should be working?

There’s plenty more where that came from, but I won’t bore you any further with the details. But while I might be an extreme case, I am increasingly convinced that modern life is geared to make all of us feel guilty at some level most of the time.

The messages triggering off these feelings come at you from all directions. Don’t eat red meat. Have five servings of fruit and vegetables every day. Read to your children. Don’t let them watch too much television/play video games/have sugary drinks/insert this week’s advisory. Have that sex talk with your teenage kids. Have a medical check-up every year. Don’t drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. Do strength training to build up muscle. Do Pilates to strengthen your core. Don’t get too fat. Don’t be too thin. Go early to bed. Don’t sleep in late.

Quite frankly, it’s hard to keep up with this stuff, especially when the conventional wisdom seems to change every five minutes. It’s almost as if there is some cosmic conspiracy at work geared to keep you off balance all the time. Just when you think you have finally got it right, they go and change the rules on you.

Chocolate is bad for you. Chocolate is good for you. No, actually, too much chocolate is bad for you. Too much of anything is bad for you. Moderation is the key. Or maybe not. Jogging is the best way to get that heart rate going. No, jogging is murder on your knees. You might be better of walking briskly. No, interval training is the way to go.

Carbohydrates are the best thing to keep your energy levels high. No, it’s complex carbohydrates actually. Hang on a minute, maybe you’d be better off with meat protein. Wait, make that lean protein. Stick to egg whites rather than yolk – that may throw your cholesterol out of whack. No, maybe there’s nothing wrong with egg yolk after all. Or maybe there is. Thus it goes. So, no matter what you do, you can be pretty darn sure that you will have something to feel guilty about. It’s almost as if guilt has become part of the human condition.

And then, there are all the things that you know that you really should do but keep postponing because, frankly, it's such a chore. You know you should visit Grandma with a nice box of chocolates or a home-made cake. But somehow you never seem to get around to actually doing it. You know you should call your parents and check how they are doing now that Dad has retired (and is probably getting on Mom’s nerves). You should check in with the friend who is recovering from a long illness, call on the neighbour who lost his wife, commiserate with the cousin who got sacked.

But the days are long and the evenings are full and somehow all this stuff falls off your radar screen. Yet, that nagging feeling persists. You know you should. You know you haven’t. And the guilt stays with you like a nagging itch that will not go away, no matter how long you scratch at it.

And then, there’s that special kind of guilt that women seem to revel in. I should have had my kids while I was still in my 20s. I should have breast-fed them longer. I should supervise their homework more regularly. I should make nutritious soup from scratch every evening. Am I neglecting my family because of my work? Or am I neglecting my work because of my family? Whichever way you look at it, you simply can’t win this guilt game. It’s a bad business, and I have a feeling it’s only going to get worse.