07.31.09

Guilt

Posted in Excerpts at 09:30 am by admin

Guilt

Last week I spoke to a book club about my book, Divine Betrayal.   At the end of the presentation I left about 30 minutes for questions.  One woman asked a very interesting question which made me spend several days trying to answer it for myself: “Did you feel more guilty as a child, or as an adult?” 

First, what is guilt?  The dictionary defines “guilt” as the “feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong doing, etc… whether real or imagined.”  Hopefully we have all experienced this feeling, unless one is a sociopath and unable to have the feeling of guilt. In Portuguese, however, there is no translation for this guilt. The only words which are used to describe guilt are “culpa” (a legal term meaning culpable or at fault), “delito” (offense, misdemeanor, crime), and “pecado” (sin). Nowhere is there a word for the feeling of responsibility or remorse for the wrongdoing.  I think this is a very significant difference between the Brazilian culture and American culture.  Can you imagine a child raised without guilt?  What might be the result?

Children in Brazil are idealized.  My children always loved visiting Brazil because there they always felt like “real important people.”  They always boarded airplanes first, and in Brazilian restaurants, the waiters came first to the children, took their orders, and served them first. Later the adults would ask for menus and service.  Whenever there was an adult birthday celebration, children were welcome.  They were never left out and were seldom punished. Once I had a Brazilian family visiting me in the U.S. and the teenage son told his mother a very obvious lie.  His mother told me as she laughed, “The little rascal, I know he is lying.”  I’m sure her son felt no guilt in telling the lie, and the parents did not try to make him feel remorse or guilt. 

As a child in Brazil, my parents taught me to feel guilty.  “The wages of sin is death,” they would say, and “It is sin to disobey your parents and the Lord.”  I was given a large dose of guilt but this became confusing when I stopped speaking English and our communication was in Portuguese. I no longer had a word to describe the feeling of guilt.  The difference was very subtle and when I did something wrong, I prayed and asked Jesus to forgive me but I did not feel remorse, or guilt.  Up to age eleven, I did my best to please my parents.  When I did something wrong, as in Chapter Fourteen when I purposefully went out on a boat instead of going to Sunday school, I felt sorry for my Dad. I knew it was making him sad, but I did not feel remorse or guilt.  Dad punished me and I accepted it and felt that I deserved it because I disobeyed him.

After returning to America things changed.  I remember when I was about twelve years old we visited my mother’s family in Minneapolis.  My cousins, Judy and Ruthann took Dorothy and me to see a Laurel and Hardy movie.  During the movie I waited for a bolt of lightening to come down and strike me.  I could hardly look at the screen as I felt so sinful and guilty for both disobeying my parents and God.  I could hardly wait to get back to my Aunt Edna’s house and kneel down in front of my parents, pray out loud and ask forgiveness for my sins.  Both Dorothy and I received a long sermon from Dad on the evils of the theater and to this day, Dorothy brings this up. I’m not sure she has ever forgiven me for telling Mom and Dad what we did!

When I returned to Brazil as a 15-year-old, I felt the most guilt.  First, I wanted to please my parents, and I also wanted to please Jesus.  So anytime I did the slightest thing that I knew was against the church rules, I felt extremely guilty.  For instance, when I took the braids out of my hair and let my long hair loose in school or when I spent time after school with friends who were not from our church, I felt guilty.  When I found myself enjoying the hypnotic rhythm of the Brazilian Samba, I felt a pain in my abdomen from the terrible feelings of guilt. 

My answer to the question of whether I felt more guilt as a child or as an adult would depend on where I lived.  Because the Brazilian language does not have the word “guilt,” I experienced the least amount of guilt living in Brazil from age five to eleven. Later on, when I moved back to America, learned English, and lived with my parents until the age of eighteen, I felt the most guilt.

As an adult, after my parents moved to Germany and I was on my own, I realized that I had to think for myself, make my own decisions, and live with my actions.  Guilt was always a problem for me until, as an adult, I formulated my current beliefs and realized that many of these guilty feelings were unfounded.  I found a loving and forgiving God and my life was no longer directed by “guilt.”

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