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...