My life of crime began and ended when I was 9 years old.
On a shopping trip to a discount store with my grandmother, our neighbor and her daughter, I spied just what I needed: hangars that held men’s socks. I grabbed three for my little Barbie family, intent on displaying their pretty 1960s clothes on them.
I got them home and, overwhelmed by guilt, walked them to the neighbor, handing them off to her for her dolls with no word about my larceny. I never stole anything again. I couldn’t have handled it.
Guilt was very powerful in my child’s brain. I’m glad it was. It led me to be honest — maybe a little too scrupulous in some minds, but just basically honest in my own.
If you’re Catholic, especially if you are Catholic and of a certain age, you’ve probably heard the phrase “Catholic guilt” and more than a joke or two about it as well. Maybe you’ve even been mocked for your own healthy dose of it.
Guilt is not a popular subject. It wasn’t when I was a teen in the 1970s, and I think it is even less so now. Our culture eschews “black and white,” and we are so intent on expanding our freedoms or not treading on someone else’s that we hesitate to voice what we think is right or wrong. We advocate maintaining a clean conscience even if we violate what may have been social norms for decades. Guilt is the enemy.
I think we need to bring it back. I think human beings are — or were — inclined to feel guilt for a reason. It’s a kind of moral barometer that protects us from ourselves. Maybe it’s not as unhealthy as some would like us to believe.
Ultimately it’s not my place to judge you or yours to judge me. Maybe it’s not even our place to judge ourselves. Perhaps we just leave that to God. But I think when you feel that little nudge of guilt, maybe it’s not a half bad idea to embrace it and learn from it. Maybe a little guilt is a good thing after all.
Patricia Quigley is a freelance writer from Incarnation Parish, Mantua.