Sunday, April 08, 2007

Brussels Sprouts Guilt

Perhaps his statement was peculiar to Southern fundamentalist beliefs and teaching. Maybe he was pulling one over on me. I’ll never know for sure because John passed in and out of my life at a luncheon. What he said started me thinking about how pervasive guilt is in our lives.

We filled up the lunch hour with the ho-hum of daily life. John spoke weather, a topic that drizzles into discussions, and I talked sports, a ritual that runs through male conversations. We graduated to family and business, the primary distractions in day-to-day life. We talked about much and said little until just towards the end of the main course. John had just finished the last of his Brussels sprouts. With a satisfied expression and a perfectly straight face, John told me that he always cleaned his plate because of the starving children around the world.

Now, I’d heard variations on this theme all my life, often with a twinkle in the eye, a wink, a nod, or a cheeky laugh, but never with such a serious face. John believed what he said.

Taking his sincerity at face value, I presumed John's parents’ had convinced him that whether he finished his vegetables somehow made a difference to starving children in distant places. My parents tried the same line with me, but I never considered the statement true for a minute. How could it possibly make any difference to a starving child in Africa if I finished my vegetables in America?

Since John took the comment seriously, I reasoned that his parents likely held a similar belief. I imagined several generations at their Thanksgiving table, each with a clean plate, and all secure in the knowledge of the poor children they had somehow helped. And those relatives likely had close friends who shared the same clean-the-plate theme. My vision grew until I saw churches, communities, and even small towns filled with people who all believed in a clean plate. Dizzy with the implications, I blinked and shook my head.

Several days later, while I scraped leftover piecrust into the garbage, I suddenly understood; John ate his guilt. When John was a boy, his parents had played with his guilt, just as John’s grandparents had innocently played with their children’s, and so on and so forth back through the generations.

Some Southern families carry a genetic form of guilt, inherited from forefathers who trafficked in the slave trade. I wondered how this racial guilt might play a role. Perhaps when Southern families feel guilty about starving children in Africa, by association they feel guilty about mistreated slaves in America.

Starvation has always been a sensational issue. In the early fifties, when John was in elementary school, television brought the developing world to the dinner table. I pictured a suppertime scene; John and his family were eating on those rickety fold-up tables while they watched a black-and-white TV program. A news clip from Africa came on. During the program John turned his nose up at the Brussels sprouts. The combination of poor black children in Africa, genetic memories of the slave trade, and John’s failure to finish his vegetables focused their collective guilt; John was instructed in no uncertain terms to finish the sprouts, and he gobbled up those little green balls with the faked fervour that only parental intimidation can engender.

I wish I’d asked John whether he still eats Brussels sprouts. Perhaps he found a way to enjoy them; he might eat them hot and smothered with salt and butter. Maybe his wife knows how to make a sauce to transform the taste. There are many ways to make guilt palatable.

The next morning, I started to look for other examples of guilt. The paper seemed a likely source. Hot topics are usually sensational events like accidents and crimes. Whenever someone is hurt, guilt runs rampant. The law courts and prisons are bureaucratic triumphs of institutionalised guilt.

The front page was plastered with guilt. One story caught my eye about a local judge who shot a fleeing burglar in the back. I couldn’t decide who was more guilty, the burglar or the judge. Clearly guilt is in the eye of the beholder.

World news provided another example. A group of Japanese held a news conference in front of the American Embassy in Tokyo. They demanded an apology from both the United States and Japanese governments for the devastation wrought during World War II. The average age of the individuals in the photo looked to be about 30 years. Since the war ended half a century ago, I wondered why these young people had championed the cause. After all, it wasn’t their generation that started the war. Of course they all lost relatives in the war, but the victims were individuals they’d never known. Perhaps their cause was on behalf of the survivors. A closer look at the article revealed the names of some prominent Japanese families and I cynically considered whether self interest might have played a role in the demonstration. Perhaps these young people felt guilty because their parents and grandparents had played leadership roles in the war. Many of their families were even more affluent in the wake of the war; might their inherited guilt be compounded by that of success, I wondered. Whether the demonstration was actually an admission of their personal guilt, or a selfless act on behalf of the traumatized survivors of the war; their strategy made sense. A bureaucratic admission of guilt would legitimise collective guilt; sharing the blame was a good strategy.

These thoughts led me half a world away to Germany and the collective guilt of the ancestors of Hitler’s generation, the perpetrators of the systemic genocide of millions of innocent people. For several millennia the Jewish people have stood out as successful. Over the years they attracted a lot of envy and jealousy, which in the twentieth century culminated in the calculated evil of the Third Reich. Hitler understood how to manipulate guilt. To consolidate the collective conscious, Hitler preached that anyone who was not Aryan was guilty because somehow their existence blemished the shine on the star of German nationalism. His sermons twisted the success of the Jewish people into a threat. With evangelical zeal he suggested that any German who did not seize what was theirs by genetic right was guilty of a form of racial treason. The appeal to sacrifice their lives in a racist quest for material gain might not have been enough for some young men and women. For these reluctant warriors, an appeal to patriotism, duty, and honour might have been necessary to placate their sense of guilt. Whatever the motivation, the war, like all wars, left a legacy of guilt that lingers.

The following day I had a doctor's appointment for a longstanding problem with back pain. My doctor gave me a prescription for a pain medication, which is all I came for, but he took license with my time to point out my various shortcomings. I listened to his regular sermon that I should lose weight and do sit-ups to strengthen my abdominal muscles. He advised that drugs were a poor substitute for exercise and fitness. As if that were not enough, he asked if I had reduced my cholesterol intake, and then went on to comment that since he could smell cigar smoke on my clothes, I obviously had not stopped smoking. After I escaped, I realised what I had experienced was the ability of the medical profession to traffic in my guilt. I saw the easy hypocrisy of health care professionals who entice us to their clinics and hospitals where they feed on our guilt. I remembered the Christian concept that our body is the Lord's temple. “Good grief,” I thought. “My body is trapped in a paradox of guilt that balances the pleasures of life with the health of my body. Is guilt everywhere,” I wondered?

That afternoon I had a meeting with a group of attorneys and accountants who were consultants to my firm. I was lost in my thoughts on guilt and unable to concentrate on the questions at hand. One of the attorneys was an African-American whose great-great-something grandfather had been a slave. I met Latikia courtesy of her senior partner who was a golfing buddy. He advised that she had graduated in the top ten-percent at Duke University where she earned a reputation as a black activist. When we met, I commented on her university successes and she responded, “Yeah, those white-ass professors had no choice but to treat me with respect.” I coughed a hollow laugh. This theme became her battle cry with negotiations for my firm, and she was very successful. Latikia was a great attorney without the racial advantage she manipulated, but she loved to flex her muscles and push the guilt buttons in her white colleagues.

Latikia was married to a schoolteacher and they had two preschool children. She took barely one-month of maternity leave, and a live-in nanny cared for her son and daughter. Many evenings Latikia worked late. On one occasion, after a meeting lasted well past dinner, we exchanged tired pleasantries as Latikia gathered up her papers to leave. I asked after Eugene, her youngest. Latikia started to cry, and after a flood of tears, I learned her seemingly have-it-all-under-control world was more apparent than real; she hardly ever saw her children. The demands of a high profile law practice required she leave before the children got up, and return after they were tucked in for the night. Her husband was an alcoholic who fooled around. The nanny had recently quit when the drunken husband made a pass. Latikia blamed herself. She kept repeating, "If I’d only spent more time at home." I reassured her that somehow everything would work out because she was so talented, but I didn’t believe what I said and I hoped she couldn’t tell. I carried on with the lame suggestion that she take some time off. Sadly, I recognised that the precarious balance between profession and family is a wellspring of guilt.

After Latikia left, I settled into a chair and considered the individuals who had attended the meeting. I knew enough about each to recognise guilt in some fashion or another. The tax accountant was a good example. No one likes to pay taxes, and if you are caught cheating you are guilty in the eyes of the law. If not, some feel guilty that somehow they paid too much. Accountants help us find loopholes to avoid taxes. To me, the loopholes looked like sauce on the Brussels sprouts, and the accountants sounded like gourmet chefs who help the business community swallow their guilt. I realized that the accounting profession had evolved, at least in part, to manage the guilt of wealth.

As president of a large corporation, some of my Saturdays include social obligations that mix business with pleasure. On the following Saturday, I was scheduled to speak at a fundraising luncheon for “Children without Borders.” I had given variations of this speech many times, always to warm applause. Mostly, I preached to the converted.

This talk turned out different. I was about half way through when suddenly I saw myself on the stage, as if I were watching from the audience. Then I heard myself. “When we give to those less fortunate, we enhance our lives.” I recognised this as a ploy to divert the guilt of success.

“Don't forget the tax benefits of your donation.” My accountant came to mind and his reassurance that all my tax deductions were legal.

“Our emotional health relies on these acts of kindness.” The tedious visit to my doctor surfaced in my thoughts.

“As Americans, we are blessed with lower taxes than any other country in the industrialized world. This makes our commitment to charity all the more important.” I realised that socialised governments purchase public guilt with higher taxes.

“Giving is a family virtue.” I thought of Latikia and her failure to give time to her family.

“Through your donations these poor children will be freed from the scourge of hunger.”

As this comment sank into the crowd, I watched several men quickly scoop up the last of their desert, and I thought of John.

Fortunately, my talk was so familiar I was not sufficiently distracted by my out-of-body experience, and before I knew it, the applause ushered me off the platform and into the glad hands of the audience. But I do not remember much of the rest of the day; conversations seemed difficult, I got lost driving home, and I forgot an afternoon appointment at my barber. Whenever I thought of my wakeful vision, I felt naked. I was exhausted and for the first time in months, I took an afternoon nap.

The following day I decided to escape from my preoccupation with guilt and went to church. I was tired of thinking about guilt and considered church a good place to divert my thoughts. I could not have been more mistaken. I had a revelation that day, but not the kind most Christians aspire to. I found myself in a sea of organised guilt. All around were friends and neighbours I had known for years, people who were the salt of the red clay earth of this Southern community. That day I walked into a theological landmine of insight; the explosion unfettered my vision, and courtesy of this new perspective, I realized the religious significance of guilt.

I must have listened to the same sermon a dozen times, but this time I heard a different message. The minister focused on Christ’s sacrifice. “Christ died for our sins; in so doing He absolved us of our collective guilt.” The word guilt startled me. I turned to my wife, “The minister meant sin, didn’t he?” She just smiled. I looked up to the figure of Christ behind the altar. The light from the stained glass played with Christ’s expression; He seemed to wink at me.

The next moment I recollect was shaking the minister’s hand outside the church. My wife was chatting with friends and I wandered into the cemetery and sought out an arbour where I knew I could sit and reflect on this experience. The azaleas were in full bloom and almost covered a tiny statue of St. John that I had never really noticed. I considered all the various religious denominations. I thought of confessionals, people reciting Hail Mary's, and of the concepts of born again, repentance, and original sin. I realised that all religions traffic in the guilt theme, with only subtle variations. For two thousand years, every Christian church has been a focus for our guilt.

“Strange,” I thought. “I always considered church a place of peace and happiness, and now I discover an ugly concept like guilt pervades the whole religious ethic.” My thoughts cried out, “Satan, get thee behind me.”

Before I rejoined my wife, I had rationalized that the use of guilt by organized religion had merit. Anything that united people in such a wonderful cause must somehow be good. This was not the first time I accepted that the Lord works in mysterious ways.

That thought led me to the significance of Christ's crucifixion. Since Christ is the model for all Christianity, in a sense, He epitomises what success in Christianity is all about. Christ holds the record as the largest reservoir of Christian guilt. No mortal will ever collect as much. Since Christ collects guilt, so should we all, and, taken a step further, the more guilt a person collects, the more Christian that individual might be. Somehow I felt better.

“What a relief,” I thought. “I’ve finally put guilt behind me.”

While in this state of grace my mind wandered to more practical matters. My wife was attending with the Altar Guild and had asked that I pick up a few grocery items for dinner. I reflected how lucky I was. I had wonderful family, a successful business, and leisure time to enjoy my good fortune. Today I looked forward to Easter dinner, a traditional family feast; our daughters and their families attend, and we usually share our prosperity with good friends. The menu is always sumptuous and I often share the cooking with my wife.

She’d asked me that morning to prepare her favorite vegetable, and as I drove home, I wondered what kind of sauce would go well with the Brussels sprouts.”

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