I suspect that guilt is like inferiority: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” So spake Eleanor Roosevelt. Due to free will and other highfalutin concepts, we choose what makes us feel guilty. In a way, guilt denotes a certain conceit; we feel bad because we think our actions hurt someone else. That must mean that guilt is empowering. We feel guilty because we have the power to affect the way others feel. Or we feel guilty because we have the power to do bad things. Wow! Guilt is starting to sound like a good thing.
I can see it now: "The Power of Guilt, Bob Etier’s dynamic explanation of the positive aspects of guilt…” Ah, but I digress. Or would the proper word be “hallucinate?”
There is no end to the things that cause people to feel guilty. Forgetting someone’s birthday, not saying please, running over a neighbor’s cat…the list goes on and on. The first time I called my husband an idiot, I immediately felt remorse, but he thought it was funny, so now when people ask me to describe Chip, I simply say, “he’s an idiot.” He’s not really an idiot, though he does think that most of what I say is funny. That, I believe, is called "humoring.” (Confession: I don’t describe Chip as an idiot, I only say that to his face. And only when he’s being one. He laughs.)
Back to guilt. There’s an old saying, “The Jews invented guilt, but the Catholics perfected it.” I don’t know about that. I do know that the fabulous “greatest generation” knew guilt's value. A fellow baby boomer confessed to me that she was very polite. So am I. If I’m not, I’d feel very bad. That means, of course, being polite to some of the meanest, most miserable scoundrels. Smiling and saying “thank you” when being stabbed in the back or slapped in the face.
Who taught me I should feel bad when I don’t treat everyone like life’s a tea party? The greatest generation—those parents and teachers and media role models (think Nancy Drew and Miss Manners) who instilled “proper” behavior through generous applications of guilt. After all, didn’t we all want everyone to think we were “nice” little girls and boys? The funny thing about being polite is that it often causes people to do something for which they should feel guilty. Who hasn’t been dishonest at some point to spare someone’s feelings?
Shortly after enjoying the discussion of my manners, I received a phone call. I checked the caller ID; I must admit that I’m rude enough not to answer the phone based on who or where the caller is. For example, the only calls we get from Boise, ID, are from the recorded sons of Ronald Reagan. The call I got this morning was coming from Clover, South Carolina. Since I’m in North Carolina, it’s very possible that a call from South Carolina is a legitimate business or personal call. Who knows? Maybe a neighbor got stranded in Clover and is calling for help. (Not a bad image though…stranded in clover).
This morning’s caller asked for Frank Ay-tair. I’m fair. I know our name is notoriously unpronounceable, so I just say “I’m sorry he’s at work, may I help you?” (See how polite I am?) The caller asks “Are you Mrs. Ay-tair?” Silly me, I admit I am, knowing that this is someone who doesn’t know us in the least, or they would 1) be able to pronounce our name, and 2) not call Chip “Frank.”
After ascertaining that she had a potential victim on the phone, the caller mumbled some identification, and asked “How are you?” “I’m fine,” I replied. “How are you?” This is an indication of my dishonesty; why would I ask how someone I don’t know is when I don’t care? Already I’m feeling guilty.
Once establishing that we were both fine (thank God!), the caller continued awkwardly reading from her script, which was going to beseech me for a donation. I don’t donate over the telephone. Sometimes I explain to callers that if they’d like to send me information in the mail or direct me to their website, I’d consider their pleas. I didn’t do that today.
This morning, maybe because I had just been ruminating about how being so polite hasn’t gotten me anywhere except frustrated or insulted, this caller had irritated me. Big time. I was super-annoyed that part of the script was to ask me how I am. Not only do I not care how the caller is, she and her organization don’t care how I am. The only aspect of my health that interests them is financial.
As she launched into her spiel, she told me she was calling for the North Carolina Special Olympics and assured me that she knew that I know the great work done by the Special Olympics. I hung up.
I never hang up on anyone. I sometimes say, “if you can’t speak to me like a human being [whatever that means] then I’m going to hang up and we can talk later.” That’s not a line I use on telemarketers; usually I tell them I’m unemployed (which, most importantly, is true) and while I would love to buy five or six magazine subscriptions, this is just not the right time. Actually, there is no right time since I have about a dozen subscriptions and read only two.
I sit here—clicking away on my keyboard, drinking my Snapple, eating my string cheese and French twists—steeped in guilt. This is patently unfair. I felt insulted by the call (whether I had a reason to is immaterial), and I feel guilty. The guilt makes sense, though. After all, the woman was calling for a good cause, she was just doing her job, she didn’t know I’d react badly to her false friendliness, Special Olympics is such a good cause—and, most of all, how would I like it if someone hung up on me?
Here I sit, guilty guilty guilty. And worse yet, I’m not a nice little girl. Darn! This day had started out so well.