|Michelangelo's depiction of God, the Father, on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.|
All this talk of emotions and how to manage them is fine in theory, but how do things work out in practice? I'd now like to examine some "challenging" states of mind, using examples from my own life. And "guilt" is a particularly pernicious feeling I've had continuing experience of.
Born into a God-fearing, Methodist family ruled by a strict and domineering father, I was soon acquainted with the notion of guilt and its effects. Although there are differences of emphasis and interpretation, all Christian sects and denominations believe in the concept of "original sin" — the belief that at birth we enter a world already contaminated by sin, the result of the Biblical Fall of Man and our expulsion from the Garden of Eden. From a rational, emotional and instinctual standpoint, I've now believed for a long time just the opposite: that we arrive in this world pure and innocent, and that it's the flawed human world which corrupts us. However, dubious attitudes and ideas drummed into us from early childhood are often hard to dispel. Or, more precisely, we may be able rationally to reject these attitudes and ideas, but the emotional toll they exact on us is often more difficult to reverse.
My parents, especially my father, dinned into me that I would be damned and rot in hell if I sinned. My youthful crimes and misdemeanours were, on reflection, pretty mild and ordinary: telling lies, swearing, chasing girls in the school playground, masturbation, drawing rude cartoons of my father's lorry driver (which led to the lorry driver reporting this to my father who gave me a beating), being cheeky at Sunday School (again this led to a beating when my father got to know of it). Yet, despite the innocuous nature of these little vices, the corresponding guilt I felt was hugely disproportionate, and hung over me like a black cloud for much of my childhood and early adolescence. I don't want to exaggerate things, as I remember many happy times too: playing with mates, reading books, Christmas, holidays by the sea. Periods when this feeling of "guilt" seemed to subside, when I could overcome it by escaping outside my self. But I would always return wretchedly and with a sinking heart to what seemed at the time to be inescapably my "default" condition, a permanent background state of fearful guilt and anxiety.
Since I was brought up by my parents to be wary of the rough and godless village children, I also found it difficult for a while to mix in with most other normal kids of my age — though I always had a small circle of close friends. All this caused further debilitating feelings of shyness and acute self-consciousness. Much of my school life was therefore a bane to me. Luckily I was intelligent and assiduous, and retreated into my school work, which I found relatively easy. Which begs the question: was I hardworking out of fear of the teachers, out of a desire to please my father, out of an anxiety I might fail, out of guilt? As though hard work and "doing well" would help assuage my constant, irrational guilty state of mind? Because I knew that my father's leather strap was always waiting for me, lurking on a hook behind the tea towel in the kitchen?
I am glad to say that life improved dramatically in my early to mid-teens, and I changed unrecognisably — gaining confidence amongst my peers, with girls and with adults, and claiming my rightful place in the world. At the age of fifteen I walked and hitchhiked through the Swiss Jura. I stood up to my father and informed him that no, I would not be going to chapel with him on Sundays any more. I grew my hair. I read Orwell and Jung and books on Existentialism. I developed, I matured; I side-stepped as best as I could the tyrannical influence of my father. I asserted my true self. I did everything that is "normal" for an adolescent, and I began to love life with a passion and intensity which has never left me to this day. Yet even now — often, ironically, when I am engaged in transparently blameless activities — residues of guilt persist, like ancient dust still clinging to the bottom of a spring-cleaned wardrobe. Fortunately I have been able over the years to deal psychologically with these childhood traumas and irrational guilts and fears, though it has been a gradual process. I think that the seeds of all such long-learnt destructive feelings and emotions remain hidden somewhere deep within us, ready to germinate again if given the opportunity.