(This essay was originally published in the mid-90s, but amazingly, it still applies to today…)
I think we are in danger of becoming a nation of perfectionists. Lately I have noticed a certain feeling of collective guilt in people that I have never been aware of before.
Take my friend Arabella. She recycles everything, uses cloth diapers, is President of the PTA, bakes homemade zucchini breads for the homeless, and is generally perfect at everything. Her husband has low cholesterol, thanks to her “heart healthy” way of cooking, and her children are well-behaved and get all A’s.
I went over to see her the other day, and she was depressed. This is not like Arabella, who always has a smile on her face, and a needlework project in her hands to work on if she has three unscheduled minutes.
I asked her what was wrong. “I feel so guilty,” she said. “About what,” I asked. Maybe she hadn’t been putting all her wine bottles in the recycling bin, or maybe she’d broken down and bought some Huggies. Maybe she’d noticed how cute the pool guy was.
“I just don’t feel like I’m doing enough with my life. Like I’m not contributing.” This from a woman who buys daily planner books and actually fills them out. “I mean, I’ve ordered pizza three times this week, and I haven’t even read the Sunday Times yet.”
“What about the pool man?” I asked.
“I’m having the pool filled in. All those chemicals can’t be good. I guess we’ll start going to the beach again.”
“Obviously you haven’t been to the beach for a while. Those chemicals are going to look good after you get a look at the brown foam in the waves.”
We both sighed and ate our oat bran muffins. That’s when it hit me. “There’s nothing wrong with us! We’re just feeling guilty because we’re not prefect, and at our age it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.”
She pointed out an article she was reading, on water conservation. Some guy had taken out all his grass, and put in green pebbles instead. “That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” I said. “Is that something a kid can lie on on a summer night? And what about the smell of freshly-cut grass?”
“It’s just that the 90’s are so depressing. I mean, the 70’s were fun and wild and dangerous, the 80’s were about indulging in everything in excess. And now we have to give everything up. Every time I use a spray deodorant, I feel I’m personally responsible for taking another 100 years off the ozone layer.”
“Try switching to roll-on,” I said. But I knew what she meant. I’d been feeling guilty about everything lately, too. I feel guilty throwing away leftovers, so I eat them. Then I feel guilty because I ate too much. I feel guilty when a policeman pulls up next to me, even though I haven’t done anything. I feel guilty when I have a heavy work week, but then I feel guilty when I don’t work because I’m not making money or fulfilling personal goals. I feel guilty when I don’t floss, and I feel guilty if I don’t separate my garbage. I especially feel guilty that I may leave a world of problems to by children, and that my generation should have figured things out.
The job of a mother is to instill as much guilt in her children, so that when they grow up they will become responsible citizens. It’s a well-known fact that criminals feel no guilt for their acts. Their mothers obviously didn’t instill them with the proper amount of guilt.
My mother has a sigh that could chill Nebraska in the middle of winter. When you hear that sigh, you feel guilt, even if you are asleep. I find that I have perfected that sigh, and now use it on my own family, along with a slow shaking of my head, and a martyred expression.
It works. Whenever I sigh The Sigh, my family stops and slows down for a moment, and feels guilty about something. Maybe if all the mothers in the world got together, and sighed The Sigh, we could reverse global warming. Or at least, something…