“Silencing the Guilt Monster”

Guilt. If it had a face, it would look a lot like the ax-waving monster that chased me through my nightmares as a child.

How dare you, it says, do the things you do or have the things you have, when others never get a chance to enjoy them?

It’s a hard question to answer, especially if you’re running from an ax. Often, I don’t try. I just keep running and feeling bad. But sometimes, on my better days, I arch my back and come up with an answer that stops the guilt monster in its tracks.

Last week, after my first eye exam in five years, I walked out of the doctor’s office grinning like a mule eating briars.

(Note: Smart people get eye exams annually. I am not smart. Do like I say, not like I do. Get your eyes checked every year.)

I’d just been told by a clearly brilliant opthamologist that my eyes hadn’t changed a bit and I still had 20/20 vision.

Good news, right? For five minutes, I was thrilled. Then the guilt hit. Most people appreciate good eyesight. But some of us value it more than others do.

My brother, 4 years younger than I am, was born premature. He spent two months in an incubator, and at 6 months, he was found to be totally blind from an overdose of oxygen. If his blindness ever weighed him down, he never let it show. But I grew up carrying the weight of it on my shoulders.

“Sister,” he’d say, “tell me what it looks like.”

Then I’d describe for him as best I could the sun that warmed his face or the moon that cooled the night or the feathers of the crows that flew cawing across the pasture.

If I failed to get it right, he’d say, “That’s not it, try again.”

Have you ever tried to put into words things that can only be described with feelings that come from the soul? It’s hard not to feel guilty walking out of an eye exam with great vision, knowing you have a brother who is totally blind.

Why do I get to see when he can’t? He doesn’t deserve to be blind any more than I deserve to have 20/20 vision. Where is the fairness? How do you explain it?

The truth, of course, is that there is no explaining it. It just is what it is. Joe is blind. I am not. So why the guilt?

When my first husband died of cancer, I kept asking myself, why did I get to go on living and he didn’t? Why did I get to see our children finish college, fall in love, get married and have children of their own? Why did he have to miss all the things I could not imagine missing?

I often hear from readers who are struggling with similar questions for their own lives. I don’t have answers for them, any more than I do for myself. The problem with false guilt _ with blaming ourselves for things that aren’t our fault and cannot be changed _ is that it blinds us to beauty and numbs us to life. It hurts, not just us, but everyone close to us. And yet how do we make it stop?

I’d love to hear your answer to that question. I’m still working on it. What I’ve learned is this: Guilt is a feeling begging to be an action. It doesn’t want you to feel bad. It wants you to move.

So I do. I try to act in a way that turns guilt into honor.

To honor my brother, I try to see everything he will never see. Every sunset. Every falling leaf. Every smile on every face.

To honor my late husband, I try to be alive in ways he used to be. I delight in family, friends, people in general, and all the crazy things they do. I pull for the Giants and the Warriors. And I say “yes” to every chance to learn and grow and be alive.

Instead of wallowing in guilt, I see for someone who will never see. And I live well for someone who is no longer alive. I do it for them. But mostly I do it for me.

It’s not easy to see the world with all its glories and faults, or to be alive in all the ways life demands. But it’s a lot more fun than feeling bad.

Try it. And let me know what you think.

Comments

  1. K Burgess says:

    You shared your feelings about your brother’s blindness and your first husband’s fatal cancer diagnosis. To honor your brother you say you try “to see everything he will never see.” To honor your late husband you try “to be alive in ways he used to be. “ You conclude by offering your well earned and well meaning advice to see and live for those who can no longer and by doing so do, do it for you. Rather than ‘wallowing in guilt” you admonishes us to try this “and let me know what you think”.

    Well I have saved this article for a month and this is what I think.

    Guilt cannot be set aside so easily. It becomes imbedded in your soul; it controls your thoughts and your nightmares. It weaves its way into every thought, every breath you take.
    My brother took his own life in December of 2014. He left behind a loving family who still does not understand why, nor how we all could not have known the pain he was in to leave us this way. Seven months later, we are each trying in our own way to reconcile this pain and guilt.

    For me the pain and guilt do not lessen, do not fade. It just shifts from guilt of not knowing what my brother was going through, that I should have somehow known and prevented this, to the guilt of feeling as bereft as I do. How dare I cry more than his wife and children, how dare I mourn the loss more than my mother.
    Thank you for sharing your stories. You may call this false guilt, but those of us carrying this burden are in no less pain. Time may be a healer but right now the wait seems a torture that cannot be bared.

  2. Nina Nirider says:

    Hello. I have never posted a comment on any website, but feel compelled to let you know how your column has touched me today and reminded me to be thankful and helpful. I don’t believe that I have ever looked at guilt as a motivator or as anything other than a bad feeling and a curse. It is empowering to know that it can be conquered in a beautiful way.

  3. May Kitagawa says:

    While reading your column today, it occurred to me that your brother’s blindness and your being called upon to provide him to descriptions, is the reason you are an outstanding writer and able to write to descriptively. Hope you have thanked your brother for enabling you to perfect this gift.

  4. Denise Ohm says:

    Hello Sharon! In thinking of how I might reply to your question of how to handle the Guilt Monster, I am staring at a quote, “Drop the Rock”. This is an Al-Anon saying that I have held dear for many years.

    For me, dropping the rock means that I cannot carry the weight of the world. No one told me to in the first place. I am, however, commanded to live my life in joy and to be in this moment where joy is. True enough, I sometimes need to examine a little closer where joy may be, but it is always there.

    Once in a while, our less than positive emotions, like guilt or shame can be a good motivator to go the other direction in life. I guess we have to visit these darker places in order to more appreciate the Light we all have.

    Love your columns!!!

  5. Clarence Vold says:

    Guilt is in a sense arguing with God – so stop arguing with God. For your husband, follow the planned action of Mother Teresa. She was asked what would be the first thing she said to God. Her answer to God – you’ve got a lot of explaining to do. When you get to heaven, ask why your first husband. Your brother made you a better person. You had to think through the mind of your brother and you became a more powerful author. You learned to use words that your brother understood and you painted the picture he saw in his mind.

  6. Tomas Jerles says:

    I think I have told you this before, but I love every column you write. You speak to my heart every week. I consider myself blessed that you are my friend. Not to mention, you slept two nights in Todd’s room. I am a lucky guy.

  7. Joni Hurt says:

    I have read your colum for years and was lucky enough to meet you personally last year. I have always wondered where you got your zest for life. I mean, I feel like I know more about your family then some of my own. (Which isn’t all bad). As I sit here in my room at TheRedRock resort, in Las Vegas of all places, I am checking out Face Book and run across this article you have posted.
    Now, I really am not a stalker, however, I have been here since Monday enjoying wonderful rest and relaxing And one of the first things I did when we arrived here, was to see what part of Las Vegas you live in. I joked with my daughter, she is here on business and I tag along whenever and wherever I can, that maybe we would be lucky enough to run into to you, she giggled and I realized that in less you go to the pool here at Red Rock Resort I would most likely would not see you. Ok, back to guilt, I have felt a lot of guilt in my life, like the time I was sixteen and my brother and I tried to preform CPR on our father to save his life, and in a way my own too, We did not succeed and he died that night. My life for six months after that, is partly a blur of drinking and other things a sixteen should not be doing. The GUILT I carried for 30 years for not being able to save his life and for the six months of a promiscuous lifestyle almost killed me. I met my husband six months after my father died and I truly believed he saved my life. After much counseling, and being moved by the Holy Spirit, I miraculously forgave myself for my actions. It was such a surreal moment when I realized I had let those 6 months, consume my life for 30 years. As I write this I realize it is lengthy and my not be what you had ask for, however, I feel compelled to post it. Maybe some where out there some one who will read this and likewise be set free. Something my Aunt told me, is that if you are feeling guilty for something , that guilt, is from the Devil. She said, and I have found to be true, that The Lord does not make you feel guilty but leads you in a way that you see what things in your life you need to change and what is your true responsibility.

  8. Vanessa L says:

    As a 56-year-old grandmother raising two teenage granddaughters, I struggle with anger for the loss of the golden years I expected with my husband, while trying to cope with the guilt I feel because I still have a better life than many people. It’s a daily struggle, but God is working overtime to help me put it in perspective. Your column is always a bright spot in my day because you remind me of what really matters in life, and your openness and honesty is such a departure from the “perfect” lives we see portrayed in social media and other public forums. Thank you for sharing your heart with us!

  9. Carol Glaser says:

    Oh Sharon you write the most uplifting articles and help us who are struggling move thu it. You write from the heart unabashedly. Once again an article that touched my heart as I am a widow now for years and have battle my own cancer now too. So I why Dan and not me also.
    Keep the articles coming!

  10. Howard Holbrook says:

    Just wanted you to know that your column touched means helped me make today a better day.

    H.

  11. Ruby says:

    I really resonate with the image of guilt being a ax wilding monster. That is what it feels like to me, too. I’ve come to realize that guilt is almost always attached to something I do not have control over. It’s arrival is sign to me that my imagination has taken over creating scary things, in part due to my feeling out of control or responsible for things not in my control In other words when i am trying to control life.
    It is often hardest to be the observer than the one actually going through the tough experience. Because we can only imagine what someone else is feeling/experiencing, Time and time again I have been shown that what I imagine is almost always markedly different to what the actual experience is. Largely because I do not know what Spirit can do and does. I know through my own experiences and others, often times the person actually experiencing a challenge is profoundly helped by Spirit. So now when I feel guilt, I recognize it as a the bullying, falsehood influence it is, and remember I have Spiritual Help that I can call on to dismiss it. I do not let it have power over me, but I do not fight it directly as it carries an ax. I ask for help from Above. And I quit focusing on it, feeding it with my attention. Instead I focus on breathing, and remembering I have Help. I say within me “no” to the false belief that I can control what happens to others, that I can control life. There are hidden gifts in everything.

  12. Brenda says:

    I am learning that while life has much Sorrow/Pain, it also has much Joy. And I choose every day to look for the Joy so I am not missing it by staring at the Sorrow. Pain still hurts, but Joy is a great salve.

  13. shashi says:

    It is very nice reminder to live fully with all what is happening around us ,with all what happened in the past , good or not very good . Life is short to think and allow any guilt to enter our lives. Very nice column . We need very good eyes to read and write ,of course computer are very bad for eyes . God bless them who work all day staring at it . One of my friend told me that she knows a software engineer totally blind . How can he do programming without eye sight ,I keep thinking when she is so sure about what he does .Amazing technology !! even blind people can handle !!

  14. Doris Lee Romans says:

    I don’t think it is guilt that I feel since I have no control over the situations. What I feel is sadness over what could have been. When my middle son was killed by a hit and rain driver 27 days before he turned 18 I eventually tried to live having a good time for both of us. I think they call it Fake it till you make it. You never make it, but you survive. It isn’t easy,, but you have no other choice that would honor the loss. ❤️

    • Nina Nirider says:

      Doris, I am new to website comments and wish that I could tell you this privately, but I was so touched by Sharon’s column today and your comment too. My greatest fear is to lose one of my sons. I can only imagine what you have had to do to go on and just the thought is crippling. You are so brave to have made the choice to live for your son. May LOVE give you strength and happiness. (I didn’t mean to capitalize LOVE, but my computer keeps doing it, so maybe it is meant to be)

  15. Liz Rea says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful column I just read. I try and make everyday count in thanksgiving for all that I have received from my late husband. I play his music and fix an Old Fashion before dinner, remember all the fun trips we took all over the world, the domino games we played, and the fun we had each and every day. I,m blessed to carry on with our children and grandchildren in the start of the second year without my husband. Life is wonderful. Enjoy each and every day.

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