Why are you reading this? Aren't there other things you should be doing? Your laundry? Your taxes? Calling your mother? Rewriting your resume? After all, do you want to be stuck in that ridiculous job forever?
Maybe this little diatribe will make you feel guilty, and you may in fact abandon your visit to Reality Sandwich to go off to peel carrots, balance your checkbook, or do something more supposedly useful. It doesn't matter, does it? Every move you make is riddled with error and folly.
Peeling carrots? Do you have any idea of how many pesticides there are in carrots? Balancing your checkbook? A reminder that your financial state is pathetic and that even at your tender age you are inextricably immersed in debt. You could call your mother, but of course that would make you remember what a terrible child you've been and how her every thought of you is suffused with disappointment.
You could leave the house and go somewhere. But where? The movies? Do you really want to stuff your brain with Hollywood's regurgitated clichés of violence? Shopping? Do you want to throw more pennies into the sewer of this degenerate commercial culture? A restaurant? You know that restaurant food is even more repellent and unwholesome than the junk you feast on at home. And of course with that car of yours, going anywhere at all is just adding to the yeti-sized carbon footprint with which you are besmirching this sad planet.
Your love life? When was the last time you had sex? And when you did, did you even enjoy it? More to the point, did your partner enjoy it? As you know, lousy lovers never have a nice day.
We could go on, but you would probably prefer it if we didn't. Given that I don't have the dimmest idea of who you are, it follows that I don't know whether you feel guilty about any of the things that I've spelled out above. But I know enough about America today to believe that you probably either do or (which is still worse) think you should.
In fact a featureless, half-recognized, but all the more omnipresent guilt is one of the chief features of the contemporary American psyche. There is little or nothing you can do that isn't somehow wrong or harmful or, at the very best, inadequate. You are, as you are constantly reminded by those with the highest intentions, little more than an infection on the surface of the planet. And those of you who defiantly gorge yourselves on the latest bacon-sausage-ham-egg-cheeseburger combo while your Hummers pump filth into the troposphere aren't fooling anyone. Ever hear of overcompensation? Deep down you feel even more guilty than the wan metrosexual vegans who believe everything the Utne Reader tells them.
No, my friend, you cannot escape doing it wrong. And of course, being, like you, a part of American culture, neither can I. This is what Heidegger called our Geworfenheit, our thrownness. We have been tossed into a well of guilt, and we have not hit bottom. Not only are we guilty of squandering Our Precious Resources and oppressing little helpless people the world over, but we have made huge mistakes with our investment portfolios and are paying too much for high-speed Internet to boot.
Is there some truth to these accusations? No doubt. But guilt as we experience it today is a sticky psychological equivalent of Liquid Plumr® that corrodes our internal pipes without clearing the clogs.
Guilt is a strangely American phenomenon. We can trace it back to our spiritual ancestors, the Puritans, who mercilessly scrutinized their consciences every second of the day (or thought they were supposed to). To the Puritans, the great vice was lust, and this legacy was passed on to their heirs as sexual prudery and hypocrisy — characteristics for which Americans a hundred years ago were known and derided the world over.
Today, thanks to the sexual revolution, we no longer feel guilty about sex — or at any rate not in the same way. We don't feel guilty about having sex. Instead we feel guilty about not doing it right, about not having or giving enough orgasms, about having penises or breasts or buttocks that are too big or too small.
All the same, it is the case, I respectfully submit, that Americans have lost a great deal of the sexual guilt that earlier generations felt. Or, to put it more accurately, the guilt has not been lost but displaced. Once focused exclusively on sex, now it is a free-floating phenomenon that can attach itself to anything: smoking, drinking, driving, shopping, eating. Remember the ice-cream commercial that said "Enjoy the guilt"? You could even argue that the rise of modern advertising and mass culture in the 1920s was a major factor in this cultural displacement of anxiety.
This guilt is extremely useful for the powers-that-be. Let's look at the workplace. Your father most likely went to work at 9 and came home at 5. He probably saw no reason for staying any later, and nobody tried to tell him he should.
Today, however, if you should have the misfortune of being a salaried employee, your employer has an interest in manipulating you into staying as late as possible and working much more than you ought to. You're a professional, aren't you? So you don't think about the hours: you work till the job is done. Except that if the job is done at 3 p.m., you don't get to go home. But if it's not done at 5 p.m., you get to stay and work late. This suits your employer perfectly well. After all, if he can get 50 hours of work instead of 40 out of you and three other people, that saves him from hiring another employee who would cost him thousands of dollars in those annoying benefits. What is downsizing, after all, but dumping a certain number of employees and distributing their workload to the survivors?
When you think about it, why should your work be done at 5? Aren't you supposed to come back the next morning and pick up where you left off? Isn't that what jobs are about?
This is today's version of the Marxist theory of surplus value. Marx said that the source of all value was labor. Where, then, did the capitalists make their money, since they weren't doing any of the work? By extracting, say, twelve hours of labor out of their workers while paying them for ten. While much of what Marx wrote was either misguided or frankly crazy, he was right about this much. But today it applies not to Lancashire mill hands but to mid-level managers in Seattle and Fairfield County.
It doesn't stop at the workplace. If you're feeling guilty about anything and everything, you are feeling weak and disoriented whether you know it or not. And weak and disoriented people spend money to reassure themselves. Thus much of advertising tries to foster this mentality. You know what a rotten parent you are. Make up for it by buying a cheesy $100 electronic toy that will either break or be forgotten two weeks after your child gets it. And here's a clever twist. Feeling guilty because you've been running yourself so ragged? Splurge! Treat yourself to some little sugar- and fat-laced delicacy to prove you really love yourself in some Oprahlike way.
There are gender-based variations as well. The most common are making women feel guilty about being fat and ugly, and making men feel guilty because they aren't making enough money or aren't macho enough, meaning they fail to behave like a combination of the Terminator and the wardens of Abu Ghraib.
Then there's religion. You have done that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, and your only recourse is to buy an insurance policy for eternity by accepting salvation at the hands of an all-loving though vindictive deity and saying you believe a series of tenets that you don't even understand.
And what about that guilt about the environment, an emotion you feel every time you toss an empty can of your loathsome energy drink into the garbage? This is good guilt, isn't it, the kind I should feel? If so, then tell us what this accomplishes. In all likelihood, absolutely nothing. Your misery over the Bad Things you are doing to the environment is merely part of the dynamic that enables you to continue your behavior. After all, if you feel bad, you've punished yourself. And if you've punished yourself, you've paid your debt to society and are free to do the same thing all over again. To find out more about how this works, just read that copy of Crime and Punishment that has been sitting on your shelf since college.
The grimmest part of the picture, however, has to do with morality. Unless you are an extremely exceptional person, your moral code can be summed up in one axiom: Seem like a nice person at all costs. If you could violate every law on the books and the Ten Commandments besides and still seem like a nice person, you could do it with a clear conscience. If, on the other hand, you behave with the integrity of Francis of Assisi but do not seem like a nice person, your conscience will torment you with ten thousand stings. There are people who feel more guilty about failing to send a Christmas card than they do about ruining someone's life.
I think you get the point. There is an Ogallala aquifer of guilt sitting a few inches below the surface of the American psyche, and it is sapping us of our power. Is there a solution? We are a positive-thinking and results-oriented nation, we tell ourselves, so if I were really going to play the American game, I would spell out some E-Z tips for managing this anxiety and present them in handy numbered form. You might even try to follow them, only to discover a week later that you have done nothing of the kind. So I will forbear with solutions. After all, I don't want to make you feel guilty about continuing to feel guilt.
Image by Cayusa, courtesy of Creative Commons license.