Are you hiding something?
Did I just see you flinch? I won’t tell. In fact, you don’t even have to tell me what it was that just flashed through your mind. It’s enough that I know it’s there. You are carrying a burden, a weight that much of the time you can ignore but which nevertheless never completely goes away.
Guilt is like that. It persists. It’s a stab that doesn’t stop. Until it is spoken and absolved, confessed and forgiven, it remains real. Now, what’s that you say? You insist that you have nothing about which you feel guilty? Why do I not believe you? If that is true, which I doubt, then you have lived a life that is either lucky, pure or blameless. Either that or you have no conscience or empathy, in which case go seek public office.
Sorry, cheap shot. Back to guilt. It’s a primary emotion, primary meaning not only important but universal. We’ve all felt it. If our greatest offense was big enough, even if was committed long ago, we feel it still. The stab. What we have to feel guilty about may be something we said or did, or it may be what we failed to say or do. Remaining silent when a shout is called for can be as damning as anything.
What I’m talking about today is not the wound we feel, but the weight we bear. Characters too.
The Wound of late has been much discussed in the realm of fiction writing. It’s the backstory hurt or injustice that has shaped a character into who he or she is in the present. It is the root of yearning, the yawning hole, the empty bucket to fill, the unmet need that shapes and drives a character, producing a false belief and an anguish that demands relief.
The Wound is a fine and important aspect of character development, one entirely fitting for our era. The hurts we feel must be healed, and when met by a lack of understanding, ownership or apology, those hurts do not go away. They burst forth as anger. Those treated unjustly demand justice. They shout. They march. Our current Age of Resentment has its origins in complaints both direct and indirect, sharp and long-standing. The public clamor going on these days, ask me, is healthy. It is our society trying to heal. It’s our collective story and a fundamental aspect of the stories we tell.
The Weight is different. The Weight drives us in other ways. The Weight may lead to avoidance and denial, or it may cause us to project our own guilt onto others. If you have ever gone on a bender, taken a joy ride, or run away from a situation, or have too quickly pointed an accusing finger at others, then you have felt the displacement of The Weight. Guilt spills over, like water when a stone is dropped into a brimming beaker. Guilt has to go somewhere, and that usually that is into blaming others. Our hope is that when the burden of guilt gets strong enough, it will lead to change. If you have ever resolved to be a better person, then you have felt that effect. [Read more…]