Ryan W. Bradley has two things: an ability to apologize for anything and guilt that hangs onto him like a bodily organ.
I often joke that if I were a superhero I’d be named The Apologist. I have a superhuman ability to apologize for anything. No matter the severity of the issue, I have the apology. Your grandmother died? I’m sorry. Your shoelace came untied? I’m sorry. This is not just a knee-jerk reaction, it’s a firmly sculpted function of my brain from years of telling myself that I am a failure, that I am incapable of being anything else, and that whatever is wrong in any given situation is probably my fault. It is a deep-seeded guilt over my own existence.
I wish I could say this guilt was rooted in a religious upbringing, but I am not Jewish or Catholic, though I did attend a Catholic school for five years. I wish I could say it was due to parents who spent my formative years making me feel worthless, but that’s not the case either. My mother and stepfather were loving and encouraging, and my dad was at times volatile, bullying, and goading, but never attacked my self-worth only my self-confidence. I feel guilty that it might seem like a cop-out to say I don’t know what has spurred these feelings of neurosis-fueled guilt, but I’ve come to accept it as being rooted in “nature” not “nurture.”
Guilt has followed me like a shadow. I felt guilty when a friend and I started a fire in a neighbor’s barn. I couldn’t fall asleep, images of flames engulfing the dark when I closed my eyes. So, I ran to my mom and stepdad and confessed.
I felt guilt when I asked my mom for money to buy baseball cards, knowing full-well we had no money. I couldn’t explain the intense need I felt for baseballs cards and the ever-growing collection I built during my youth, though I recognize now it was one of my earliest compulsions. When my mom gave me money, it tore through my heart. My brain was being devastated by want, but I couldn’t take the money in good conscience. Sitting in a parking lot in the car with my mom I experienced one of many adolescent mental breakdowns.
In middle school and high school girls somehow made me feel guilty for having crushes on them and asking them out. It takes a true neurotic to feel guilty for that, but I did, and that sense of worthlessness and guilt followed me until college when women finally wanted me and then I indulged in that want, as if I were eating an endless meal and my stomach couldn’t be filled.
But I didn’t truly know guilt until I became a father. Fatherhood made me an All-Star in the Woody Allen League of Guilt. Every time I see my four year old neurotically bite his fingernails or compulsively straighten his toys I feel guilty. Those are my genetics at work. I feel guilty when he flies into a rage over nothing, or when he stands next to other four year olds and he’s a head shorter than they are. Of course I love him intensely, but this only fuels the guilt. I love him so much I would never wish my genetics on him.
It is a form of guilt that drives me to go to work every day, which I think is a good thing. But it creates yet another cycle. I have a family to support, and my dislike for the jobs I’ve had makes me ashamed for not being better than I am for my family. And even having a job I feel guilty for not having a better one, for not being a better provider.
There is nothing I don’t have the capacity to feel guilty for. And I don’t think guilt, in and of itself, is a bad thing. Guilt and conscience go hand in hand, which means morality can stem from it as readily as neuroses. At least people who can blame their guilt on religion or upbringing have some sense of being in a club. Even if Woody Allen claims he doesn’t want to be a part of a club, he is, and I want a club, too. A place where we can all apologize to each other, cyclically like an infinity loop or a Smiths song on repeat. And my wife would like that, too, maybe I would wear myself out so I wouldn’t apologize after everything she tells me. Of course, if there was a club I’d likely skip the meetings, only to feel horrible about doing so.
Like all the other parts of myself I would like to be rid of, my guilt is like an organ, and not the kind I can donate to someone else and in the process look heroic. I have already offered it to my wife as a companion, and to my offspring as an organ of his own. So I will continue to live with it, hoping that, like my other organs, with age it will grow weary of working correctly and begin to sputter out. Until then this essay will be added to the long list of things for which I am sorry.
Photo credit: Flickr / butupa