Saturday, February 26, 2011

Guilt And Shame

It’s very telling how we deal with guilt and shame, isn’t it?

I used to think such feelings were foisted on us by society but now, watching my boys develop, I can see that actually we are all born with an innate instinct for right and wrong. I daresay that instinct is borne out of a very basic nascent empathy – how would I feel if someone did that to me? – but it does the job just the same.

When my youngest, Tom, has been naughty – and believe me he’s sussed enough to know when he’s being naughty – he’ll tackle the resultant fall-out in one of two ways. The first is to hide his face or run away. I’m sure that response is borne out of his belief that if he can’t see us then he is rendered somehow invisible. The second is to try the ol’ distraction and sympathy technique. This usually involves him offering up his hand as if it were an injured bird and suddenly inventing an injury that nevertheless didn’t stop him twatting his older brother around the head with a toy spaceship a few seconds earlier.

“Ow! Hurt!” And those big brown eyes will implore and beseech in the vain hope that what’ll come to him is sympathy and hugs and not a good telling off.

We no longer fall for it and as a consequence he tries this tactic less and less.

But he was never taught it in the first place. It seemed to be already there in his armoury of survival techniques. And to be honest it was a tactic I pulled quite often myself in my youth – and continued to do so until I was well past Tom’s age. I can remember being in the playground at Infant School and trying to attract the attention of some Sikh kid. Looking back on it now I can see he would have looked quite cute to a grown up with his hair tied up in a little hankie on top of his head. At the time I didn’t think he was so cute. He refused to acknowledge me and I thought him an arrogant git though I didn’t have the vocabulary to call him so. As my shouts weren’t having the desired effect I did the next logical thing: I threw a stone at him and cracked him a whopper on the side of that hankie.

Cue tears and the joyfully pointing fingers of accusation from every other kid in the playground. “Him, miss, him, Stephen – he did it, miss!”

I hid in the boy’s toilets and had to be ordered out by the teacher. I emerged with a sudden limp and that same hound-dog look that Tom often pulls on me and Karen. It got me just as far as it does Tom. A good telling off. ‘Cos I was guilty and I knew it.

So why not just hold my hands up and admit it? Well, I just couldn’t deal with the guilt and the shame of doing something that was wrong. The telling off; the shouting were minor tortures. It was having to acknowledge that guilt in front of everyone else that was the real killer.

Now, of course, as adults we make a virtue out of acknowledging guilt and wrong doing. We like people who “take it on the chin”, who don’t “pass the buck”, who ‘fess up and deal with it. We deplore people who don’t; those who wriggle and seek sympathy (BP take note).

And yet to hide away and deflect the attention is still, I believe, our first deeply-rooted instinct.

I guess to overcome this is what sorts the men from the boys.

As for me, can I just say that I have not been motivated by guilt to write this post? I have not done anything wrong and expiation for some unnamed crime is not my prime motivation. I know what you women are like, see. A guy starts philosophizing about guilt and shit and you’re first instinct is to wonder: OK, so what the hell have you been up to that you feel so bad about it?

That’s the fake guilt that you women make us men feel just by looking at us and going, “hmm?” with your eyebrows raised. And that’s the subject for a whole other post by someone much braver than me who is stupid enough to tackle it.

‘Cos I am staying well out of it and I am staying righteous.

And I’m sure I’ll hear a big Amen to that from my brothers...



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22 comments:

Mark said...

Oh really, no repressed guilt eh? I reckon your hiding in the toilets as I type.

Steve said...

Mark: ow! Owwwww! I've hurt my leg!

Gorilla Bananas said...

You sounds like the kind of fellow who needs a bit of flagellation to cleanse his guilty soul. If you can't whip yourself, I suggest you hire a dominatrix in a catsuit.

Steve said...

Gorilla Bananas: alas they don't come cheap and that means taking the food out of my kid's mouths to pay for it. Great. More guilt.

Maybe I'd better hire two dominatrix's in catsuits?

Nana Go-Go said...

I`ll tell you how I deal with it on Monday when I have to tell my boss about the mishap I had with one of her VERY EXPENSIVE ornaments whilst she was away on holiday!I may just be looking for a new job come Tuesday - unless the superglue does its job properly!Should I keep shtung!Any advice would be most welcome.
Re the stone-throwing incident, you`d have got your backside well and truly tanned for that,m`lad, had you been one of mine!

the fly in the web said...

Mother was good at trying to instill feelings of guilt when I was small...

'I nearly died giving birth to you...'

would roll out at whatever misdeed I had committed, big or small.
And then I remember thinking one day

'Well, that's not my fault, is it?'

and guilt rolled away never to return.

Steve said...

Nana Go-Go: I'm still up for a good spanking... would be nice not to have to pay for it for once. ;-)

The fly in the web: "I nearly died giving birth to you..." At least you didn't come back with "Pity you didn't". My mother never pulled that one; she preferred the revenge to come: "just wait till you have kids of your own; I hope they play you up as much as you do me". She was right too. Curses!

Kelloggsville said...

For some strange reason I can hear an American voice going "Bee ash-aimed buoy". Thanks for that.

My husband doesn't do the 'I'm hurty' thing on being presented with his 'here's what you did wrong'. He always starts the next sentence "well you...". So I say "please hang the tea towel up rather than leaving it in a wet heap" and his response would be "well you left a potato peeling hanging off the bin last week". Life in my house is a never ending joy.

Steve said...

Kelloggsville: ah the old blame game of oneupmanship... anything I can do you can do worse. I like to play that myself. Though I never seem to win. Doh!

dbs said...

I enjoyed this clever little debate about our basic motivations. Fight or flight is often at the core of everything. Oh, and amen.

Steve said...

dbs: I agree. I think every human reacion can be pared down to fight or flight. I guess knowing when to run or stand your ground is the root of all wisdom.

Phil said...

Re your line: “We like people who take it on the chin…” etc:

Not unlike that notorious moral farce and its sensational duplicity at the center of President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s little indiscretion together in the 90’s then.

In public Clinton blamed the whole indiscrete affair on "a terrible moral error" and on his anger at Republicans, by saying: "if people have unresolved anger, it makes them do non-rational, destructive things”.

Having perjured himself a few times during the subsequent judicial enquiries’, he eventually ‘came clean’, escaped impeachment and sat back to indulge in his country’s complete forgiveness.

A short while later, he emerged again to become the worlds most highly paid and sought after ‘speaker’ at private and corporate functions, and is today one of the most respected foreign statesmen on the planet.

But surely even Bad Billy Willy couldn’t argue that popping off for a bit of out of wedlock oral relief while standing under the banners of U.S. presidential honour and integrity…didn’t have its longer term rewards, and in more ways than one.

There’s a few messages in there somewhere – I’m sure – but I’m damned if I can figure them out, so I’ll have to do as Monica did I suppose…and take that on the chin.

Steve said...

Phil: Monica and Bill. Post coital guilt to the power 10. And then the shame of the stain on that dress which prevented Monica from taking it to the local laundrette to get it sponged out. They are perfect illustrations of all I was attempting to discuss in this post. And of course Bill is the expert at the defence most people use when suffering with guilt and shame... bending the truth. He did not have sex with that woman. His doodah indulged in a bit of sticky friction with her mouth. But he did not have sex with her.

I bet he didn't have sex with Hilary for years afterwards too (if ever) though I'll warrant her dresses are stain free.

Fran said...

C'mon, own up. There has to be something.

Steve said...

Fran: that's between me and my priest. Er. Nothing pervy meant by that, by the way.

Alienne said...

Aah, yes, I remember a small child repeatedly and vehemently denying that she had had any chocolate - while her father and I tried not to laugh as her face was covered in it. Eventually she learned that coming clean at once was always better; the longer they left it to confess the angrier I ended up.

I have to say that the one I really hate is the politician/banker claiming "I have done nothing wrong". That is tantamount to admitting their guilt since it always turns out that actually, yes they bloody well have done something wrong. The fact that the papers were crawling all over their expenses/bonus is often an indication that perhaps they are not quite whiter than white.

Rather than taking the food out of your children's mouths perhaps you should just buy your wife a catsuit and a whip for mother's day.

Steve said...

Alienne: catsuit and whip for Mother's Day? Did that last year. As for the bankers... why do they never realize that we can all see the chocolate smeared over their faces?

Very Bored in Catalunya said...

Ha Joseph is going through the exact same stage. After an illness the other week that kept him off school for a couple of days he has realised the power of the 'sickie', and coupled with the sudden ability to sulk my boy is pulling all kinds of tricks out of the proverbial bag.

My personal favourite is when he's received a stern ticking off for some wrong doing (usually one that involves physical pain upon my husband's person), and then proceeds to fake cry and bury his head in the sofa (or my stomach if nearby) and say that his Dad is being mean and he's really sad and/or poorly - cue bottom lip stuck out and moistening of eyes and much hilarious guffawing by me.

Kids eh!

Simpsonslover said...

What happened in the last couple of paragraphs? I was all "this is a funny story" and then you turned on us women! Nothing to be guilty about? Hmmmm I dunno, Stevo. It reads as though you've done the old switcheroo and tried to cover up whatever it is you've done by pointing and accusing us of the fake guilt thing to take attention away from yourself.

Did you drink straight from the milk carton? There's got to be something.

Steve said...

Very Bored in Catalunya: your boy is surely a Jedi Master. Fake tears in his eyes? That is genius.

Simpsonslover (I Know Who You Are): you're damn right I drink milk straight from the carton and then I wipe my mouth on the tea towel as well. And I swipe the last biscuits from the tin. Wanna make something of it?

Löst Jimmy said...

Hit him on 'That Hankie' oh dear, whilst I don't condone your actions I did like your description of your ghastly deed.

Steve said...

Löst Jimmy: best shot I've ever made. Sadly the skill proved not to be transferable and I was really crap at both cricket and rounders.