Since Good Friday, I've been brewing up a post on guilt - or lack thereof, perhaps, because guilt is something I very rarely feel. I've always been comforted by Mr. Bennet's conversation with Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Realizing that Lydia's elopement was caused primarily by his neglect, Mr. Bennet blames himself:
"You must not be too severe upon yourself," replied Elizabeth.
"You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough."
That has been exactly my experience of guilt: though I may experience it from time to time, it is transitory. I don't necessarily have to talk myself out of it, or do something to dispel it - I can just wait awhile and I find that it evaporates of its own accord.
But in spite of Mr. Bennet's ironic reflections on how prone human nature is to excessive guilt, I know that there are people who are habitually too severe upon themselves. My mother is one of them. In fact, one theory I have about the origins of my mental Teflon is that a lifetime of listening to my mother beating herself up about things that are not actually her fault has made me skeptical about the usefulness of guilt. (My other theory is that guilt levels are purely hereditary, and I got mine from my father.)
Related to my ability to deflect guilt is my ability to convince myself that my character flaws are actually strengths. In this case, my inborn resistance to guilt has a number of positive side effects. I do not have to engage in destructive guilt-avoidance practices like blaming the victim. I am not traumatized by or resentful of the guilt trips inflicted upon me by others. (Well, okay, I am traumatized and resentful, but surely not AS traumatized and resentful as I would be if I were more guilt-prone.) Of course, I also do not have the life-changing remorse that would allow me to emerge as a much better person ... but you can't have everything, can you?
The mental Teflon that protects me against guilt also has other uses. It convinces me that my tummy roll is actually invisible to the naked eye when concealed by a long shirt. It allows me to ignore the students falling asleep during my lectures so that I remember only the alert, engaged faces of the two students who spent the class doing something other than catching up on Facebook.
A bit of amateur dabbling in psychology suggests that these are fairly widespread traits. Most people consider themselves to be above-average drivers. Men, at least, habitually overestimate how attractive they are to the opposite sex. Selective awareness seems to be the norm rather than the aberration.
Perhaps what makes this quality feel unusual to me is that it's not the norm among MY people: the bloggers, the book-readers, the introspectors. My mother, I think, is more typical of people like us. She's the kind of person who, when someone is rude to her, dwells for hours on what she did to provoke it. She lives with a general free-floating guilt about not doing enough, and not doing what she does well enough. She is one of the most beautiful 65-year-old women you will ever see, but when she looks in the mirror, all she sees are jowls.
Which kind are you? Guilt-proof or guilt-prone? And where do you think those traits come from? Is it in our DNA or the product of our upbringing?