Last week things seemed to conspire to cause me to write on a particular topic. First there were a few comments on Mad Genius Club (which, btw, has a different post today and one that might be of some interest (or not)) discussing whether having over-demanding parents actually resulted in over-achieving children. And then there was the comment here left by someone who thought I needed three thousand words on the subject of something I studied in college in far more depth than she seemed able to grasp. At the end of it, and almost as a throw away, there was a bit about guilt which implied that guilt was always bad and that, of course, in the future, when we’re all like onto angels, no one feels any guilt at all.
So, let’s take these in turn. Of course most of us think over-demanding parents are terrible. I didn’t like them one little bit when I was little, and I don’t think I’ve grown to like them any better, even as I became one. (Or did I? The questions is “is it OVER-demanding?”) Besides, there’s all the stories of stage parents, and what they do to the poor mites caught in the clutches of their overweening ambition.
But let’s start with that last. Having been caught in the mad whirligig of what I’m assured is a saner version of the entertainment business (Ah! Like a man running down the street in his underpants is saner than one running down the street in a fish costume, screaming “I’m a carp.”) I can tell you that even if you have genuine talent (whatever in heck that is) and even if you’re working out of your own ambition and not mama’s, it will still destroy you given enough time and indie not emerging. (I’ve gone slightly mad. It finally happened…)
What I mean is I don’t think it’s possible for a parent, particularly one who thinks their kids are geniuses in something related to show business, to apply that kind of pressure to a business that rewards in inconsistent and capricious manner, without making the child go completely insane. I’m not even sure it’s possible for you to apply that kind of pressure to yourself over a few years without going completely and permanently insane.
Also, through years in gifted classes, magnet schools and several other places where the academically interested gathered, I’ve seen enough parents pushing their kids to do things they clearly couldn’t do. That is bad, and that will break the kid. As will pushing your kid into something they really have no interest in, no matter how gifted the kid is. As someone who picked her degree not because of an overwhelming interest, I’m here to tell you it’s very difficult, no matter how “gifted” you are in the matter. My interest was always in writing fiction, only being in Portugal at the time, I thought I couldn’t possibly live from it – but because it was “safe” since, if there were no jobs for translators/interpreters, it guaranteed a teaching career (and there were always jobs for that.) I am not actually gifted in languages, but I am gifted in humanities, which means I only needed to study very hard in the language courses, and could “fake” the rest. It was still hard to make myself do it, because I had no interest in it.
The human mind is a wonderful instrument for avoiding work, and when it doesn’t want to work, it’s very good at thinking up reasons why, including up to – for a book I really didn’t want to write (no, it’s never been published, long story) making me fall asleep whenever I sat at my desk. Doing that through a whole degree is a pain. I’d never have finished if I hadn’t also been working part time. Being half-dead in class helped.
So, yeah, pushing your kid into fulfilling your dreams is a bad idea. And pushing your kid into having perfect As when they don’t have the capacity is a bad idea.
For the longest time, I thought #2 son was going to end up wanting a Classics degree, and I was prepared to tell him to at least take some tech thing on the side, like car repair, so he could make some money while translating from the ancient Greek for fun in the evenings. As it turned out, he fell in love with the idea of aerospace engineering and that was that. But the other was possible.
So, pushing beyond the kid’s limits will make your kid a neurotic mess. So the key is to know what the limits are and push up to them and not further. This isn’t as hard as you think. If you’re an engaged parent and don’t have an ego the size of Pluto, you’ll know the signs you’re pushing too far too fast.
However, isn’t it best not to push? Oh, heck, no.
Look, the other thing humans are really good at is not doing much of anything. I know that I met just as many “brilliant wastrels” as I did “Overpushed not quite geniuses” in my school career. You probably did too. Which one does best as an adult? It again depends on whether the people being pushed have a vocation and an interest. And if the parents are stupid enough to push too far and break the kids.
But as for hearing your parents’ voice in your head telling you all your efforts aren’t “good enough” I know a lot of us live with it, and are fairly happy and fulfilled. If it gives us that little extra edge, that is not always a bad thing. After all, people who are too contented, do nothing. And do they enjoy doing nothing? In my experience, since the human heart is a thing of perverseness, no, they don’t. They do nothing, and they hate themselves and others and go around complaining about everything and everyone and society too. They are aware of wasted potential within themselves, they have never acquired habits of work because nothing was ever required of them, and they feel dissatisfied, but don’t know how to fix it.
Which bring us to this idea that the ideal society has neither guilt nor shame. This is of course the idea of the noble savage turned on its head: in the perfect future, the perfect human has no complexes, no hang ups. He sleeps with whomever he wants to, does whomever… whatever he wants to, eats whatever he wants to, and always feels in perfect joy and kindness with himself.
Of course, in the real world, savages have more taboos, more guilt and more shame than any more “civilized” human and imagining they don’t is a form of patronizing and often of racism. Just because their taboos and their internal mechanisms aren’t ours, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. For instance, if what I read about the Maasai is true, the women might seem care free and promiscuous, but actually their liaisons outside marriage must fit a certain age and social pattern or be very strongly frowned upon and punished.
In the same way, imagining a future where all of us are perfectly from all guilt and shame, is impossible if we still remain human. We might feel guilt and shame about different things, but if you imagine you’re more free of hangups than your medieval ancestors, let me tell you, you’ve been sold a bill of goods. Oh, sure, we don’t feel guilt (and certainly no shame) for breaking religious taboos we don’t have – say meat on Friday – but we do feel guilt over things that would puzzle our ancestors: leaving the light on too long. Eating too much (unless, of course, they were very religious and the ‘too much’ rises to gluttony.) Throwing cans not in the recycle bin, or even littering something that – to judge by people in other countries still – they’d do carelessly and with no remorse.
Shame is simply a mechanism of social cohesion. You feel you shouldn’t do this or that because “what if anyone knew?”
Sometimes it’s completely stupid or at least opaque to us. For instance, where I come from, when all the clothes were dried outside, we had a line down in the patio for drying our undies. Because the rest went on top of the garage, and people might see them, and it was a shame for people to see your undies. Now, I think it would be more shame for people to think you didn’t wear undies, but that’s just me. Maybe it was for people to avoid seeing their neighbors’ sprung elastic and parachute-like bras. Maybe it kept people from dying of embarrassment in public.
But sometimes shame is useful. Say that of your own you don’t have enough morals not to shop lift. Say you think the corporations make too much money or whatever. So you’re ready to bag that candy bar, but you think “what if I’m caught? I’d die of shame being arrested.” And you don’t.
Shame normally ensures you follow social norms. Its value is as good as the social norms, but insofar as it lubricates the gears of societal intercourse, it’s a good thing. If it’s a shame to cover your behind on Friday, then by gum, go around without undies on Friday. Yes, it’s stupid, but if everyone else is doing it, doing it too will make them happy and who really cares. (Okay, me. No one should have to see my behind.)
What about guilt? Guilt is more serious. Guilt is between you and your G-d, or if you lack a G-d, between you and your ineradicable beliefs, and in my case, “yes.”
I feel guilty if I injure another person, both because that’s against my religion and because it is against my principle of not hurting people (unless it is necessary to defend myself.)
Now how it’s dealt with is different if it is inadvertently or on purpose. Inadvertently, my religion says I’m innocent (though I still need to think through the circumstances and avoid doing it again, if possible.) My civic conscience gives me no such leeway screaming that “you should have known better, dummy” even if I did it inadvertently.
Do I walk around with a sludge of guilt? Oh, sure I do. All adult humans do.
Is this a bad thing?
Well, it depends, doesn’t it? Feeling guilty because I trod on an ant on the sidewalk is probably stupid. Feeling guilty because I failed to save a kitten born too soon and tossed out, and which I didn’t find is stupid too. Doesn’t mean I don’t feel that guilty, but it’s dumb.
Feeling guilty because I didn’t do as well as I could for my kids is only good in the sense that I pause before I repeat the mistake. (Though it might not be repeatable in this life, there’s always the grandkids.)
Feeling guilty if I’d committed murder? Well, wouldn’t not feeling guilty be much, much worse?
Guilt of the stepping on an ant kind is not, no, going to make me insane. Even guilt for murder wouldn’t, if I’d committed murder because I HAD to. Yes, I’d still feel guilty, but it wouldn’t drive me nuts.
The idea that any form of guilt at all is bad and eventually makes you insane is a lie. We all have guilt, even if it’s guilt over having guilt.
Guilt is the electrical fence around your idea of how life should be lived (whether that idea is originally yours or received.) When you touch it, or even approach it, you should feel the shock. Its pain is less than what you’d feel if you went out into the open field and your life lost all goalposts and all moorings.
Shame is a small social kind of the same thing. It’s the “did I violate a taboo of my society, which will cause people to shun me” whether the taboo is sane or not. For instance, if I lived in Portugal I’d wash my sidewalks and front porch every week. Not because I care but because “the neighbors will talk.” It would cost me 2 hours a week, but it would keep me in good standing.
In a functioning, non toxic society shame keeps people doing things they might not naturally feel inclined to, but which in the end are good for the society itself. Say, keeping the sidewalks clean. Or keeping an eye on your kids, so they don’t wander about half naked in the street. Or staying indoors instead of talking to boys out on the street, which might seem perfectly innocuous to you (We were talking books. Sigh) but which will give you a reputation and make your eventual marriage harder.
Shame enforces the rules that allow us to live cohesively together.
Guilt enforces the rules – internal or external – without which we start doubting our own humanity. (Note, I’m not saying those rules are eternal or even universal, but they are what reassures each of us we’re human among humans, and that we’re “good” for a definition of good.)
Now it is true there are people that feel neither guilt nor shame. Weirdly, they’re not angels. They’re psychopaths. The smarter ones, who wish to survive, learn to fake the normal feelings of mankind. The ones who don’t, usually are heinous and remembered throughout history.
Our education system, having forgotten that we’re social animals and neither angels nor islands, seems determined to uproot both guilt and shame. And a society with neither isn’t a society. And if it works (it won’t. People find new sources of guilt and shame. See “judging” and “not recycling.”) that would be a way the world ended.
UPDATE: different post over at Mad Genius Club.