My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent

Most of us learn about guilt quite early in life, I think. It’s usually labelled ‘guilt’, because the word is a kind of gentle synonym for something deeper, something our era needs to feel it is in the process of transcending as an homage to our children: sin. Maybe guilt is just another, softer, way of labelling the fear many of our Biblical ancestors felt with the concept of Original Sin -a kind of sinlite.

But guilt is not amenable to an easy expiation -it is far too sticky for that. Like blundering through a spiderweb on a trail in the woods, once acquired it is hard to shed; it acknowledges the spider, but that alone is not a reparation. Guilt is the appreciation that we are responsible for something unwelcome that has happened, something either unintended, or performed on purpose, and perhaps with enmity.

And yet, on its own, guilt is invisible to others unless admitted -confessed, in fact. Contrition needs airing for it to have any remedial effect -either on the victim or the perpetrator. Silent guilt is like wearing a hair shirt under an expensive suit.

But, lest this unintended homily degenerate into a jeremiad, let me situate my concern more firmly around a situation in which I found myself recently.

I live in the rural suburbs of a tiny village, and although I have neighbours, I cannot see their houses from my driveway. We are all friendly should we happen upon one another in the town, but I can’t say I know the names, or even the faces of all of those who live nearby. It’s enough for most of us that we smile if ever we meet in the village store, or nod to people in the local restaurant when they look up; it’s considered to be the same as recognizing them. The problem arises, though, if some of them have eccentricities that impinge on the local norms -the local laws, especially.

My house is located up a long lane, and separated by a field with many trees from the local traffic, so I feel cushioned from any unconventional behaviour by and large. I hear the passage of large trucks, it is true, but for most of the year while the trees are heavy with leaves, I see very little of the road. It means, of course, that I have to be extra diligent in lugging my garbage can to the road in time -they are very strict, if somewhat unpredictable about the time they arrive to pick it up. And if there’s no can, there’s no second chance for another 2 weeks.

The municipality is also very precise about what counts as garbage, and how large a can you are allowed to use; anything not in the can is left for whatever wildlife wanders by. Over the last year or two however, I’ve noticed that some driveways try to circumvent local ordinances by placing objects they no longer want near but not immediately adjacent to their garbage cans: things like kids bikes, chairs, and dressers. At first, I thought they were just being generous and leaving things for people that otherwise couldn’t afford the items. In fact, one day on a walk, I was tempted by a nice looking desk chair with wheels by the side of the road, but by the time I came back with the car it was gone. Fair enough, though -at least it was wanted by somebody.

Things changed, however, when I reached the road with my garbage can one morning to find an old mattress and a broken wicker recliner near my preferred spot. The truck still picked up the garbage, of course, but when I went to retrieve the can that afternoon, the mattress and chair were still camping there. It rained that night and when I checked the next morning, nobody had been tempted by the wicker chair, and I mean, who would want an old soggy mattress?

Fine, I thought, the owner would see that the gifts were not taken so they would soon disappear from whence they came. But they didn’t. And in fact, there was even a plastic table there, straddling the mattress the next day. That afternoon I had a call from the municipality asking me to remove the junk or I would be charged for its removal. Clearly, although unwanted, it had not gone unnoticed.

But even had I decided to remove those things for which I had no responsibility, I only have a small car; the wicker thing wouldn’t fit.

The next evening, returning later than usual from a dinner with friends, I noticed a figure unloading something from a pickup truck idling in front of my lane. I was on foot, but with the light on my phone, I could see it was a young woman that was busily unloading something from the truck.

“Excuse me,” I yelled as I approached her. She looked up from her task for a moment, and then proceeded to topple whatever it was onto the ground by the road. “What are you doing with that stuff? This is my lane…” By then, I was close enough to see her face in the interior lights of the truck cabin. I didn’t recognize her as one of the locals.

“Just leaving some stuff in case anybody wants it…” she answered, and shrugged at the tone of my voice.

I shone the light on the old mattress and raked its beam over the table. “Are you kidding? It’s an old soggy mattress, and the table is simply junk as well as the beat up wicker chair. “It’s rubbish, and it’s also illegal to leave it there.” I was happy I wasn’t saying this to a muscular young man.

The woman stared at the light I was shining in her face for a moment and then shrugged again. “Other people are doing it…” she said, puzzled at my objection it seemed.

“Well, I’ve been asked to remove it by the municipality or they will charge me if they have to do it…” I switched the beam of my phone light onto the rear licence plate of the truck and took a picture to show her she could be identified.

She walked slowly around to the back of her truck. “Sorry,” she said, but it sounded more like a challenge than an apology. “Tell you what,” she continued, “I won’t put any more stuff here… I’ll find another place. How’s that?” She closed the tailgate of her truck and climbed into the still-lit cabin behind the steering wheel with a pretend smile on her face.

“You’ll remove the rest, young lady, or I’ll report you to the police.”

She sighed and maneuvered her shoulders into her third shrug of the night. “I don’t live here, and it’s my boyfriend’s truck. I’m just doing him a favour, so good luck, eh?” she said and closed the door as she encouraged the truck to spin its tires on the asphalt before they both took off down the road.

Okay, so was that really an apology? She did, after all, stop unloading her truck, even though she didn’t make the slightest attempt to expiate herself. She must have felt at least a little guilty, mustn’t she? Or was she merely embarrassed at being caught? I mean, surely an apology only works if it acknowledges that the action to which it refers it was inappropriate and probably resented.

I explained the situation to the municipality the next day and they didn’t charge me for removal. I don’t know if they spoke to the owner of the truck; I’m just happy no more unwanted detritus has appeared near my lane. But I’m still confused about whether the explanation I was offered by the woman was a recognition of her guilt, or if her failure to dump the rest of the junk she still had in her truck was an act of atonement. Well, actually, I can’t decide whether or not I was gaslighted…

Perhaps I have too much time on my hands now that I’m retired.


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