Post 63: Guilt

Do you feel guilty when you sin? I’m not talking about when you break one of the Ten Commandments. Following the letter of these ancient laws is not the societal concern that it used to be. You probably don’t think much about keeping your graven images in check, or coveting your neighbor’s spouse, or making it to services on the Sabbath. Guilt comes to us in other ways these days. It’s almost impossible now to avoid the shoulds and should-nots when it comes to climate change, extinctions, and the steady dying-off of the natural world. I know that a lot of people feel guilty when something they’ve done makes things worse. They tell me so.

I’ve probably “made” people feel guilty by publishing this blog. My goal is to inspire people—but I think they’re two sides of the same coin. There have been instances when people felt guilty just visiting me. “I could never live this way,” people have said, though I never asked them to live the way I do. I don’t know if it’s the vegetable garden, the yard overgrowth, the composting toilet, or the small living spaces they’re reacting to—but it seems like these individuals are carrying around little bombs of guilt that explode whenever they see something that models sustainability. I’d much rather have an inspiring life. But because people are so different—and have so many levels of comfort or discomfort with my choices—I just can’t worry about guilty reactions. Is their guilt good, leading to action, or mostly pain, with no personal growth? I don’t even know the answer to that question.

The best word on guilt I’ve heard lately came from Drew Wilkinson, speaking (virtually) at the Glacier Climate Week 2022 conference in Austria. Wilkinson works for a large corporation, which he’s hoping to influence toward greater greenness. He said, “Nobody is doing enough about the climate crisis. I’m not doing enough. You’re not doing enough. Your government’s not doing enough. Your employer is definitely not doing enough . . . That’s nobody’s fault . . . [But] from that acknowledgement comes an enormous opportunity.”

He’s putting all of us at the same level. Just envision a bar chart depicting the entire task ahead. The tallest bar represents what needs to be done to save humanity. A bunch of smaller bars shows our individual efforts, different for each person. The tall bar is really tall, going way off the top of the chart area. When this happens in making a chart, the creator can chop out the middle, to indicate that the bar goes on and on, and its true height isn’t being represented. But when it is represented, when you can really see its relationship to the shorter bars, look what happens. Our individual efforts all look pitiful. Nobody is far from zero. Squat. Next to nothing. Whereas in the altered chart, there appear to be significant differences.  

Left: Chart showing accurate lengths. Right: In this chart, the smaller bars seem to differ more, while the shorter bars appear more or less the same.

It helps me to think of the real, accurate chart on the left when I get tempted to compare other people’s “climate deeds” to my own. But is our predicament “nobody’s fault”? Is it an “opportunity” we’re facing?

Thinking of us all on equal ground, I like to consider birth. No human has ever been born with clothes on; we all arrived naked. Helpless, too. The clothes we were subsequently dressed in could serve as a metaphor for the ideas, habits, and norms imposed on us until we began to think for ourselves. Until we got old enough to see beyond our parents’ ways and beyond our familiar, particular culture—possibly even beyond the modern world. This takes a while. It involves undoing, which is never easy. For anyone. Especially, at one extreme, the children who never had the stability or security of a platform to jump from. At the other extreme are high-functioning leaders who are fueled to action by compassion and an expansive understanding of the world.

I’m somewhere in the middle, as are most people. But we can’t know what any other person has been dealing with since their naked birth. That means we can’t pass judgement. That’s freeing, isn’t it?

Raised Lutheran, I had plenty of little Catholic friends. They educated me about their faith: confession, purgatory, the Hell you’d be consigned to—guaranteed—if you killed yourself. They seemed to feel fearful or guilty much of the time. As young adults they often threw out these teachings and expressed a bitterness about them—blaming them for the guilt they still carried and bemoaning the probability that they’d never be rid of it. Whereas Lutheranism held that salvation came through grace, not deeds. The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule were important to follow, but if you didn’t, you could call out to Jesus on your deathbed, and all would be forgiven in an instant. Is that upbringing the reason I don’t struggle with a lot of guilt as an adult? I can’t speak for Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists, but I’m guessing that religion and family beliefs do affect the guilt feelings people carry as grownups.

So maybe the guilt we feel has less to do with reality than what we were fed in childhood.

Still, this whole situation with carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere has meant a lot of shoulds and should-nots for adults. Potential guilt. The stakes are earthly, not after-worldly. And they’re high. The survival of civilization? Of humanity? No wonder people try to deny them.

Personally, I can’t imagine ignoring the overwhelming amount of science in order to make this escape. But maybe the very fact that people are denying science is a kind of proof of the gravity of our plight. If something’s so horrendous you have to contradict reality in order to keep functioning—well, you probably need to contradict reality. I don’t understand this need. But it must be strong. To grab the rug and pull it out from under these deniers—who knows what that would do to them?

My own father’s beliefs were similar. Before he died in 2006, I asked him what he thought about climate change. “God wouldn’t let it happen,” he answered. His faith always gave him a comfort and calm beyond what I could ever muster. As a child I benefited greatly from these qualities of his, and I probably still do, though the belief system behind them is no longer mine. I sometimes envy people who find this kind of security in God. How could I argue with my dad’s serenity? Or anyone else’s?

For others, the climate crisis is just one possible scenario for The End. It could be nuclear war. It could be a comet. It could be a powerful virus. Is there any point in changing one’s habits for just one scenario concerning humanity’s future? Unknowns can be crippling, especially when one has learned a certain way of life. I can’t condemn this way of thinking, either.

A month or so ago, I had my own crisis of purpose, questioning my anti-consumerist bent. I’m used to hearing about or viewing certain instances of man’s humanity to man (please, someone, degender this phrase), but one day it overwhelmed me. I had just watched the final episode of Ken Burns’s Holocaust, when someone sent me an article about a 70-year-old man in California who had spent his entire adult life building gardens, solar installations, and found-material structures on his property. It looked like his neighbors were finally going to succeed in shutting him down, getting the county to raze everything, essentially erasing his life. I sympathized deeply with his struggle. Another video was about the indigenous people of Australia—part of which featured an old island prison, with Auschwitz-like barracks, where Aboriginal men had been held and tortured. The buildings had been refurbished—preserved and turned into an island resort, advertised in a slick brochure that made no mention of its history of horror. In between these media offerings I probably heard a few news stories: tragedy in Ukraine, a mass shooting or two, another assault on democracy rooted in various people’s lust for power. Well, it was just a bit too much for me that day. I completely wilted. I could only see humankind as a planetary scourge. It needed to be wiped out. Nature was absolutely right in coming down on us with floods, fires, hurricanes, droughts, polar vortexes, extinctions, diseases, and whatever else she had in her arsenal. Bring it on! It was time for the human experiment to end. It had failed. I was willing, myself, to succumb to whatever methods she chose to get rid of us.

There was no point in writing an anti-consumerist blog anymore. How should I end it? For that matter, how should I live now? What would I do with myself, if it wasn’t the usual seed planting, compost making, alley shopping, thrift-store browsing, hunting for gifts from Nature? Where would I be if not in this desert neighborhood, where fruit hangs over walls to be saved from rot, and I know what’s edible from the natural landscapes? Who would be my friends, if not the people who taught me so much about the world, still support me, and like my crazy experiments? Who would I be?

So inertia was involved. I can admit that. Maybe it is time for the human species to go away, but one dark day when it seemed true to me wasn’t enough to turn my whole ship around. There were other considerations.

The good people.

We often talk about good people vs. bad people:

  • Sometimes bad things happen to good people. – Common saying based on a human dilemma
  • I believe there are more good people than bad. – Barack Obama
  • The greatest tragedy is not the brutality of the evil people, but rather the silence of the good people. – Martin Luther King, though there are multiple versions of this saying
  • Good people know about both good and evil; bad people do not know about either. – C.S. Lewis
Pamphlet cover with two stick figures and the words "How to Tell Good People From Bad People."
1964 school pamphlet

The Bible prefers to use the words “righteous” and “unrighteous.” Remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah? The cities are full of sin, and God wants to wipe them out. But Abraham begs Him not to, saying:

” ‘Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ So the LORD said, ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.’ Then Abraham answered, . . . ‘Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five?’ So He said, ‘If I find there forty-five, I will not destroy it.’ And he spoke to Him yet again and said, ‘Suppose there should be forty found there?’ He said, ‘I will not do it for the sake of forty.’ (Genesis 18)”

This goes on, as the Bible will sometimes do, all the way down to ten. God, being a nice guy (or even a groovy guy), promises he’ll back off if there are even five righteous people in the cities. There aren’t. So God escorts Abraham’s family (Lot, his wife, and kids) out of the place, then destroys it.

I’m thinking, I should be at least as nice as God when I’m considering the destruction of humanity.

The biblical text does have that good-and-bad, black-and-white, righteous and unrighteous way of looking at humans, while I (and probably most of my readers) don’t. What’s the ratio here on Earth, anyway? Then the idea of good and bad existing within the person—well, that makes it even trickier to consider blotting everyone out.

If there are other people rooting for this outcome—and continuing to shop, buy water in plastic bottles, fly excessively, load their grocery carts with packaging, throw usable stuff into the trash—I can’t be their judge. Perhaps they’re helping Nature get rid of the diseased body. They’re thinking it’s a good thing.

So. These are a few excuses for people who want to get rid of their environmental guilt. Unfortunately, it doesn’t ultimately matter how anyone feels. The consequences of the bad habit will be felt by our habitat in the same way, guilt behind them or no.

But Wilkinson sees an opportunity in all this honesty. When I emailed him to explain, he said:

“I meant the widest possible group (everyone). And the ‘opportunity’ is an invitation for all of us to figure out where we are uniquely positioned to make change happen. . . . If we start [with acknowledging that nobody’s doing enough], it means there is so much work to be done, and there is something for all of us to contribute, in whatever ways we can.”

I would add that we have an opportunity to improve our own personal lives and happiness. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know what I’m talking about. If not, pick an interesting title from past posts. Pretty much all of them make this claim. Life gets better when it gets greener.

And if you still feel guilty, take the opportunity to explore just one thing you’re inspired to do for our species—like waiting to check out thrift stores for that item you need, instead of buying it new. Guilt can be made to disappear.

Above all, have fun.

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