TO an eavesdropper, "I feel so guilty" is one of the most common confessions heard.
There is, it seems, almost no experience in life that will not lead to guilt. People feel guilty about being too rich. People feel guilty about being too poor. People even feel guilty about not feeling guilty.
This is known as free-floating guilt, but there is nothing about guilt that floats and nothing about guilt that is free.
For partial proof, just ask working mothers, who could probably take first prize in any guilt marathon these days. In books, magazines, and real-life conversations, they worry that they are simultaneously shortchanging their children and their parents.
A new study of married couples might dispel at least some of that concern. Two researchers report that married mothers, whether they work outside the home or not, spend about the same amount of time with their children on such activities as dressing, bathing, and supervising homework. Professors W. Keith Bryant of Cornell and Kathleen Zick of the University of Utah found "no evidence for guilt" about child care, noting that working mothers give up their own leisure time to be with their children.
Even mothers at home are no strangers to what a friend calls "the guilts." As a preschooler, our daughter had a playmate whose mother was blessed with an abundance of energy and creativity. When the mother made sandwiches, she decorated them with happy faces - olive slices for eyes, pimento strips for mouths. When she played ring-around-a-rosy, she crumpled in a rag-doll heap on the first note of "all fall down." Her unflagging enthusiasm was enough to make the rest of the mothers on the block - those of
us who served plain sandwiches and only pretended to fall down - feel a tad guilty, as if being a good mother somehow depended on these small, charming acts. Who says guilt has to make sense?
In the workplace, guilt makes conscientious employees reluctant to go home at a normal quitting time. Guilt propels vacationers out of beach chairs in search of the nearest telephone to call the office. And guilt (or is it self-importance?) can prompt restaurant patrons and theater-goers to bring along cellular phones - just in case.
Perhaps the newest guilt trip involves the environment and includes everything from spraying aerosol cans to burning fossil fuels. The simple act of throwing paper into a wastebasket rather than a recycling bin can produce uneasiness, as if the Recycling Police stood poised to make an instant arrest.
Similarly, the standard question at the supermarket - "Paper or plastic?" - can make a shopper feel that both choices are wrong. To be truly environmentally correct, a little voice whispers, Americans must follow the lead of Europeans and carry their own string bags.
Then there is that second supermarket dilemma, the food itself. In the past decade, Americans have been made to feel more and more guilty about eating almost anything, with milk and margarine only the latest suspects.
Guilt serves a necessary purpose for the truly guilty by pricking consciences and improving errant behavior. But could anything be sillier than needless guilt, or more obsessive? Once allowed to start, it sets off a chain reaction, turning daily life into a non-stop apology, one long "I'm sorry."
Petty guilt represents a failure of perspective - trying to be a perfectionist about the wrong things and for the wrong reasons. More often than not, guilt is a state of worrying about what somebody else will think - of seeking to satisfy the standards imposed by friends, colleagues, neighbors, or even those television ads that rebuke you for not having a figure as slim as Madonna's or a kitchen floor as clean as your mother's, or both.
Is this slavery or is this slavery?
How to break the spell? It will take more than one reassuring study of working mothers, and more than a few magazine articles like "Have Yourself A Guilt-Free Little Christmas" or books such as "Guilt-Free Dog Owner's Guide." It will require, finally, a real understanding of innocence. But until then, perhaps the worriers of the world could begin by taking the advice teenagers are fond of giving their parents: Lighten up.