We’d lit the candles while my mother said the prayers. We had finished our chicken noodle soup, challah, and salad, cleaned away the dishes, and brought out a few small gifts that would conclude our annual Hanukkah celebration with my Jewish mom. This was the fourth night of the Festival of Lights, but as it was our first night with my mom, it was our one and only Hanukkah night this year. The day before Christmas Eve, we carved out some time for this ritual. On the 24th, my boys would open presents with their father and his side of the family. Tonight, however, we had together.
“Hey, look what I got!” said my younger son, giddy with Hanukkah excitement. “Guilt!”
“Gelt,” I corrected him, choking on my sip of wine. “Gelt is the foil-wrapped chocolate coins we have at Hanukkah. Guilt is something else entirely.” He proceeded to repeat his verbal faux pas for the remainder of the evening, although seemingly for reaction each time. “Gelt,” I reminded him each time. Thirty minutes later, we bundled into the car and headed for their father’s house for, as they call it, Christmas Eve Eve. I said a quick goodbye, envious of the easy excitement of the young. I headed home, which was conspicuously quiet and calm. Time to spend a peaceful evening with my mom and — hopefully– sleep with more ease than I had for the last few weeks.
Sleep has been an elusive companion lately. While falling asleep is occasionally a problem, staying asleep from five onward plagues me far too often. As an eight-hour-a-night person, this drop to five or six night after night makes for an out-of-sorts string of days. Knowing (or at least hoping) it’s the stress of the holidays helps. While I don’t go all out for the season, I do enough to create a fair amount of extra work. I try not to worry about what isn’t done, but concerns nag at me, and they seem to like to do this most several hours before the sun comes out. Guilt walks closely behind — or perhaps ahead — of my worries.
Ah, gelt would be such an improvement.
Because I haven’t dictionary-delved and dissected for a while, lets turn to the online Merriam-Webster for a definition of guilt:
1: the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly :guilty conduct
2a: the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciouslyb: feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : self-reproach3: a feeling of culpability for offenses
Guilt has its place. Definition 2a, the state of one who has committed on offense especially consciously, is the prick of discomfort that can keep us from a Lord of the Flies existence. Guilt about wronging another can lead to efforts to repair those wrongs. Many might prefer to ditch the word guilt, replacing it with self-awareness, but I prefer the bite of good-old guilt. Guilt can drive us to do the right thing when we really don’t want to. A bit of guilt can lead one on to a heart-felt confession and determination to do better next time.
But definition 2b, feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy, is a different beast entirely. I’m a pro at imagining offenses, either ones I imagine I already committed or ones that I might commit if I say or do the wrong thing. Or if I don’t say or do the right thing. Either way, like worry, guilt (2b) is useless and damaging. This season, I’ve done my share of both, and I paid with my ministrations to those futile emotions with my sleep. Do I make the cookies my mother loves, or let myself off the hook this year? Did I get the gifts for the boys even? Did I overdo it for them? Did I miss a cue during that conversation with so-and-so? Did I stay too long when I visited? I’m getting it all wrong!
Yeah, that stuff is the useless guilt and worry that folks say to discard.
If it was only that easy. I’m convinced some of that tendency toward worry and guilt is imprinted on my DNA. I can’t place that load on my Catholicism, which wasn’t the faith of my most formative years and was not practice in a place that paired the faith with guilt. There is a fair amount of tendency to ruminate and feel guilt (2b) on my father’s side of the family, with a lessening of intensity as those genes are diluted by passing generations. I’m able to talk myself through most of my worry and guilt, but I’ve yet to reach the point where I don’t feel them come on, unbidden and unwanted. Like the neighbor’s cat that frequents our back door, guilt and worry return spontaneously, since at times they are fed. (Yeah, sometimes we feed the neighbor’s cat. I don’t feel guilty about that. Much.)
So as the end of the year approaches, I continue to work on letting guilt (2b) and worry go. With the more preparation-heavy holidays past, they are less likely to keep me awake. The pair is likely to continue coming, however unbidden. After 42 years, that seems unlikely. I can continue to acknowledge them then let them go. All feelings pass, and these are no different. As for what I pass onto my sons, that remains to be seen. I’m hoping it’s gelt. That’s the good stuff.