Thursday, March 28, 2013

GUILT RIDDANCE: How to Live without a Conscience

Notice that the conscience has already been removed in this illustration.

     When I was five, my parents took me to the hospital, where the doctors dispatched me with ether, opened my mouth, reached into the center of my head, and removed a few things. My mother, carefully explaining the word “vestigial,” had promised me that the offending items, called “tonsils,” served no good purpose, that in fact without them I would suffer fewer of the sore throats that are (I have since decided) the proper lot of five-year-olds.
    I had my suspicions about the entire enterprise. Most of the other stuff Mother Nature had given me—teeth, spit, nostrils—seemed pretty useful, I thought, and on the whole it wasn’t like Her to stick in merely-decorative extras. But then I considered earlobes, navels, and toe hair, and on balance I decided to leave my trust in Mother Weathers.
     The instant I woke up after the operation, I knew I had been bamboozled. I was in a strange bed in a dark room full of whining little bodies. My throat screamed unceasingly with a condensed lifetime of pain. I quickly ran out of Kleenex to cough blood into. My mother was nowhere to be seen.
     Within the limits imposed by uvular agony, I began to bawl, and after an eternity a giant nurse materialized by my bed, white and ghostlike, whispering coldly, “Hush. Brave boys don’t cry. Sssh. Don’t be a sissy. Quiet! You’ll wake up the other children!” At any time earlier in my life, her appeals would have worked at once. But the operation had changed me. Instead of meekly shutting up, I looked her defiantly in the eye, pointed to the empty Kleenex box, and demanded, as loudly as I could, “UH!”
     I was never the same thereafter. It was clear to me that when the doctors reached into my head, they had removed more than my tonsils. Later, surrounded by still-cold Popsicle sticks in my bed at home, I hounded my mother about it, and she finally admitted that, yes, the doctors had in fact also removed something called my “adenoids.” That sounded ominous. “Adenoids,” my mother explained, were lodged behind your nose and made you talk like a kazoo.
     So she said. Today, sixty-umph years later, I know that when the doctors excised my adenoids, they were actually after, gasp, my conscience. Apparently they got it. I haven’t heard from that adenoidal Jiminy Cricket of a naysayer since, and even today I am unable to secrete the master hormone called . . . Guilt.

Jiminy Cricket plays no role in my psyche.

     Yes, I am the only guilt-free man of the Post-Freudian Age. It is a strange thing, and a mixed blessing, to go through life without tonsils, adenoids, or guilt. While those around me writhe in creative agonies of conscience (“Mea culpa! I don’t love my father enough!” they moan, proceeding to write chapter twenty of their third novel; “Oy, the sins I commit in the dark!” they wail, finishing the fourth movement of their Sixth Symphony), I lollygag through life burbling, “Hey, what’s the big deal?” and swing on the hammock of worthlessness.
     But if guilt is the juice of creation, it is also, from what I can see, the hemlock of despair. I’m just as happy to be without it, thank you, even if it means I’ll never win a Pulitzer.
     At this point I need to make a distinction. While I don’t feel guilt, I do, of course, feel shame. I am, after all, only human. Shame tells me, “You are foolish, weak, a dud.” I have, naturally, all sorts of things to be ashamed of. I once invented a joke about a New Delhi swain who, attempting to seduce a well-wrapped young thing, uses the line, “But, Indira, love means never having to stay your sari!” That’s something to be ashamed of. The way I look without a shirt is a shame. My forgetfulness for names is something to be seriously ashamed of. The amount of time I spend in front of the tv is monstrously shameful. And so, infinitely, on.

Love means never having to stay your sari.

     But one cannot help one’s afflictions, even as one is ashamed of them. A withered wit, a sunken chest, a gripless memory, even a limp character—one doesn’t feel guilty about them because one did not intend them.
     For guilt is about intent. More specifically, it is about malice—the intent to do harm. The way I figure it, if I never intend to do harm—and I never do—I have nothing to feel guilty about. When I had it, therefore, my conscience was indeed a vestigial organ, and it is just as well they took it out with my adenoids.
     Oh, I’ll admit that there have been times since the age of five when I thought that maybe the doctors had botched the operation, leaving behind just a piece of a conscience, a slip of pathogenic tissue hanging invisibly behind my septum. In the fourth grade once, for example, as we were passing our papers forward after a spelling test, I noticed as Bobby Zambri’s paper reached me that he had spelled the word “dangerous” with an “e” in it; that looked more inspired than my version, so while pretending to shuffle the papers around, I sneaked an “e” into mine. And later, for a period of about five years starting when I was 13, I regularly did things to my sweet older brother George that resulted in his enduring various forms of physical and emotional pain, not to mention teeth marks, knowing that because he was bigger he wasn’t allowed to retaliate in kind. And still later, when I was 19, I managed, with all the delicacy of a beanball, to bruise the feelings of a nice girl named J---. Fleetingly, I felt something almost like guilt in each case. But nah, I decided, it was just the nature of youth, for which no one—least of all myself—could blame me. And so I bubbled blithely—and guiltlessly—on.

This is how I once treated the feelings of a nice girl.

     Since then I have been negligent, stupid, ignorant, insensitive, dim, petty, ornery, and disgusting—but, hey, what’s the big deal? I never try to hurt anybody.
     Nevertheless, my absence of guilt has been infuriating for many of those who have touched my life, especially wives, children, parents, lovers, bosses, psychiatrists, giant nurses, and others with a stake in emotional manipulation. “Ach, how you hurt me!” and “Sssh! You’ll wake the kids!” never work on me. I am not to be moved by appeals to an organ I no longer possess. And that, as any giant nurse will tell you, makes me a dangrous man.

(The original version of this essay appeared in Memphis magazine in July 1986.)

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