A Guilt-Edged Conscience

Is it because I am the miserable sinner I humbly confess (one day a week) to be, but who I frankly confess (on the other six) that I am not, or is it because I am a good New Englander, that my conscience gives me the same sort of irritating discomfort which is produced by the presence of a stone in the shoe? Are other good New Englanders afflicted in the same way? I use ‘good,’ not in any self-righteous sense, but rather as expressing the quality of being true to type — as representing that absence of viciousness which reduces the brotherhood of the innocuous to the colorlessness of water clouded by a few minims of the milk of human kindness.

If my conscience could, like a good little child, be seen rather than heard, it would resemble, I fancy, that unpleasant putty-like ectoplasmic substance which, we are told, melts into invisibility when exposed to light; but my mushy, dirty-gray conscience is protected from its own elusiveness by a guilt-edged rim, inexorable and indestructible.

A conviction of sin is much too metaphysical a term to describe the rasping sense of wrong-doing which accompanies my every action; and the complex of guilt is intensified by wellintentioned suggestions and criticisms from my family and friends, all of which I try to follow, thus making of my earthly pilgrimage an expedition as unsatisfactory as those restless travels with a donkey of Æsop’s old and young man.

I should like to exhibit a few specimens of the metaphorical stones in my shoes, and see if others can produce equally pain-giving pebbles.

For example: I go to lunch with a friend who is a perfect housekeeper, and her domestic excellencies sting me with such a sense of remorse that I slink home, through the valley of humiliation, determined to lead a more methodical life. For a few days, existence is rendered intolerable for the family by my orgy of clearing-up, throwing-away, taking-down, and putting-back. The Salvation Army saves my reason, if not my soul, by removing all problems of bric-à-brac and domestic débris; but as I see Great-Aunt Deborah’s haircloth trunk, full of yellowing papers, unrecognizable daguerreotypes, and family photograph-albums, being carried out by reformed criminals who are improving this shining opportunity to make good, my conscience aches so that I groan aloud. Then a soothing little voice (from inside the margin of guilt) whispers that they are not Soldiers of Destruction who are bearing away my dead past, but an Army of Salvation; and I am so uplifted by the thought, that I turn to a basket of very holy stockings, and try to fill, with lumpy yarn, the vacuums which—like nature — I abhor. Does this virtuous action meet with the reward of a quiescent conscience? By no means. Having got a stitch in my side for every two in the sock, I pause for a moment to have a chat with a neighbor, who, on seeing me at the window (like poor old Hannah binding shoes), runs across the street to drop the following bomb in my work-basket: —

‘I should think that in these days of unemployment you would feel that it was not right for you to do your own mending. There are so many women who really need the work, that I think people like us ought not to do it ourselves. I should think you’d want to cultivate your mind a little. If you don’t read books or magazine articles, you won’t be a fit companion for your husband. You’ll become a mere sewing-machine.’

I recognize the danger, and for the next week, in a panic of repentance, I give employment to the unemployed, while I rush to the circulating library and consecrate my days to mental improvement and enlightenment.

My next critic — a woman of the world, to whose wise words I always turn attentive ears — tells me that it is very narrowing to live only in books: first-hand experience is necessary. I should ‘go out’ more; and she offers, as a tonic for an atrophied intelligence, a mixture of social work and social play — a solution warranted to turn a grubbing bookworm into quite an agreeable butterfly. I recognize the truth of her criticism, close my books, send the magazines to the missionaries, take my cardcase out of moth-balls, and feverishly issue and accept invitations. Then (to avoid being socially lop-sided) I tie myself to various uplifting Causes, so that, when I am not working at my play, I am playing at my work. But behold, it is all vanity, and guilt is eating into my conscience again.

‘Don’t you think it is a mistake to keep on the go so incessantly?’ my gentle husband inquires. ‘I believe the Eastern philosophers are right. A certain definite division of time should be set aside daily for meditation. Repose would quiet your nerves, and then I think we should all feel less irritable.'

A good idea! I decide to contemplate. I go into the Silence. I breathe deep, and invite my soul. Alas! my soul does not accept the invitation, but sends a substitute!—a frivolous little spirit, who whispers trivial comments into my ears while I am trying to concentrate on Nothingness.

‘I wonder whether that old gray satin is worth turning,’ a worldly minded imp ruminates; and while I push the idle question down into the depths of my subconscious mind, where it belongs, another inanity pops out of a neighboring hole, and has to be suppressed before it gets over the threshold of the mind I still endeavor to control. In fact, I am so busy slamming down lids on foolish notions, which stick their heads out of my subconscious wastebasket, that remorse again submerges me.

I cease trying to contemplate, and go out into the street. Perhaps in the world of men and women I can moralize more normally, and concentrate my thoughts better, than when I attempt it in my closet.

But I come upon a hurdy-gurdy playing a jazz-tune, and under cover of the passing of noisy vehicles I find myself humming the meaningless air, even when I have passed beyond the sound of the jingling stimulus to syncopated song. A strange lady whom I meet looks at me in shocked surprise, and says reprovingly, ‘I think, madam, you cannot realize how loud you are singing.’

So home I go, humiliated and conscience-stricken, to take up again the trivial round, the common task, with no joy in the performance of either pleasure or duty.

‘What I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.’

With deep humiliation I have laid bare my weaknesses, distorted into sins by the magnifying lens of a New England conscience. This self-abasement is offered to other sufferers, in the hope that they may realize, before it is too late, that a conscience is not functioning normally when its possessor measures every deed and every feeling with the rule of duty. The person who feels guilty whatever he happens to be doing, because he is not doing something else, is permitting a delicate spiritual balance to degenerate into a morbid excrescence.

In the disease of Consciencitis the tender part of the conscience is inflamed with the poison of imagined sin; and unless a practical practitioner, with no New England blood, will remove the guilt-edge from the ecto-plasmic substance, and let the sun of reality shine upon it, the conscience will cease to be an Indicator, and will become a Dictator.