Friday, March 6, 2015

The Wages of Guilt

Having a culture that values openness and honesty, and that prescribes public confession as the cure for guilt produces some strange, even appalling results.

A man writes to Dear Prudence, aka Emily Yoffe, to explain that when he “knocked up” his girlfriend he wanted her to have an abortion. She chose not to do so. They married and are now parents to two children. 

The child he had designated for abortion is a fine boy, one he loves enormously.

What’s the problem?

He feels guilty for having wanted the child aborted. He believes that the best way to assuage his guilt is to tell the truth to the child?

He writes:

But now I live with the knowledge that I had once suggested aborting a fetus who became someone I love and cherish and with whom I want to be honest and authentic. It seems crazy to tell my child that I had suggested he not be brought into this world, but I also find it difficult to live with what has become a burdensome secret. Should I explain to my child what happened and how happy I am his mother didn’t listen to me? I worry that when he’s older he might ask about the timing of our marriage and his birth, and start asking probing questions.

Appallingly, this is considered normal behavior in a culture that is based on guilt and punishment. Note that his sole concern is his own anxiety. He does not have sufficient benevolence for his son to think about what the news might do to the child.

Happily, he asked the question of the sensible Emily Yoffe. She rises to the occasion:

You don’t have to tell your son that you initially suggested abortion anymore than you have to tell him what position you and his mother were in when he was conceived. Sure, someday he might do the math on your anniversary and his arrival; what he discovers might not even be of great interest to him. But if he has questions, you tell him the truth: His nascent existence helped you to see that his mother was the woman for you, and so you two decided to tie the knot. You have a wonderful relationship with your son. Confessing your guilt about your understandable desire at the time not to become a father will not make your relationship more honest and authentic. It will instead violate the important principle that some things are best kept private. Your negotiation with your then-girlfriend over her pregnancy is one such private matter. If you need to confess, seek a therapist or a religious figure to discuss this with. It’s time you were relieved of this unnecessary psychological burden. Dumping it on your son is not the way to do it. (boldface mine)

Yoffe is being slightly too kind to label the anxiety he felt when his girlfriend got pregnant an "understandable desire." I assume that she is trying to reach out to him. In truth, the man had no real notion of responsibility for his actions and was looking for an out. 

As it happens, the man is not alone. Many people today believe that their moral worth lies in their ability to be open, honest and authentic. They proclaim this precept without thinking about the fact that it can easily be monumentally narcissistic.

Ask yourself this: how would a young child react to the information that if it had been up to his father, he would never have drawn his first breath.


Ares Olympus said...

The advice is clear enough. I've never heard this predicament before, and it is strange the man thinks it'll make him feel better.

The more traditional "dumping", whether from a parent or an older sibling, is that they were "an accident", like their parents didn't want them, and in some level, its the same predicament.

Or even finding out your parents really wanted a boy (or a girl), and so you were not wanted, but presumably your younger sibling of the "correct" gender was.

I can't guess how such "revelation" affect children, but it would seem more harmful for younger kids, while a father talking to a 15 year old son over the birds and the bees, it might not be a totally off topic, given 15 year olds probably don't want to become fathers.

I admit the whole issue confuses me. I wouldn't feel guilty considering an abortion with my girlfriend or wife. I wouldn't feel bad if I knew my parents were unsure about parenthood, and considered aborting me.

So if my dad confessed such a thing, I'd say "Don't sweat it dad, I'd be okay either way, but since I'm here, I'd better make sure you made the right decision and live a good life."

Maybe that would make him feel better?

Ares Olympus said...

The only other perspective I can offer is from Scott Peck and Carl Jung.

I'm always in love with the idea of "thought experiment". You can work out lots of stuff without bothering anyone.

But the real problem is when your thought experiment concludes you have to go beyond the thought experiment and take a risk, threaten a relationship or expose something shameful that you can never take back.

But holding everything in forever seems like the easiest choice in all matters of guilt and shame. He who dies with the most shameful secrets never shared wins, right? Well, Dostoyevsky suggests that's a good path to addiction anyway.
Peck believes that it is only through suffering and agonizing using the four aspects of discipline (delaying gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing) that we can resolve the many puzzles and conflicts that we face. This is what he calls undertaking legitimate suffering. Peck argues that by trying to avoid legitimate suffering, people actually ultimately end up suffering more. This extra unnecessary suffering is what Scott Peck terms neurotic suffering.

He references Carl Jung 'Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering'. Peck says that our aim must be to eliminate neurotic suffering and to work through our legitimate suffering in order to achieve our individual goals

Leo G said...

A conundrum for sure! For if the wife ever decides to freevorce this chap, and things go bad, she has the big weapon in her arsenal!

I think I would be talking about forgiveness a lot with this child!


n.n said...

There is a difference between orientation (e.g. thoughts) and expression (i.e. behavior). The father should wait to discuss his temporary orientations until his child is mature enough to properly reconcile ideal and real domains. His father's delayed affirmation of a positive principle (i.e. intrinsic value) will either confirm or challenge his now adult child's perception. While this precludes discussion of the father's orientation, it should not affect discussion of moral principles (i.e. religion).

That said, the father should thank his wife for possessing the strength and character to honor their child's right to life. The father learned an important lesson without committing a grievous moral crime. He has since repented and should be forgiven his poor judgment. He has, presumably, promoted a better orientation and life for his child.