Stop Feeling Guilty!

Liberal Guilt is a cliche, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a pernicious problem.

All day, yesterday, when I was staffing the _Lantern Books_ table at the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival, I spoke with people who felt guilty – or, more precisely, ashamed. (Psychologists generally define guilt as regret over an action or feeling; shame is when you believe that an action or feeling makes you inherently a bad person.)

I quickly learned to ask strangers who stopped by the table “Are you vegetarian?” instead of “Are you vegan?” because many non-vegans responded to the first question with shame, often launching into tortured explanations of their food choices.

Then there were the people who felt they weren’t doing enough activism – like the woman who had a houseful of rescued, traumatized animals she was caring for, but felt bad that she wasn’t doing more campaign work.

And then there were the many writers who stopped by the table to talk with me, writer to writer. Most had written articles, stories, poems, or pieces of books that they had never completed, or had completed but never submitted for publication. They all spoke with shame about not having met their goals.

I even had my own moment of shame. While walking around the exhibit floor, I met a gentleman who goes by the name of Puppy, although he looked more like a Big Dog. A “puli”:, to be exact. He spoke eloquently about the amount of waste the Food Festival was producing. He told me how he lives so as to waste almost nothing – not to mention, super-cheaply. And he told me that he had a problem with the word “activism” because it compartmentalizes what should be an ethic of everyday living. He seemed, in short, to be a person of rare vision and courage, and talking with him, I found myself become defensive and a bit ashamed about my own choices.

In _The Lifelong Activist_, I talk a lot about guilt and shame: about how many people feel these emotions unnecessarily and undeservedly – often in response to no wrong that they committed, but wrongs committed against them by someone else. Also, how guilt and shame can cripple your efforts at self actualization.

Another point, that I have learned from my friend and mentor Dr. Melanie Joy, is that people often make seemingly “bad” choices for good reasons. Let’s take the woman with the household of rescued animals who feels guilty that she isn’t doing more activism. Hello! I have _one_ rescued dog, the famous Hawkeye, and he takes up a huge amount of time and mental energy. Anyone who’s taking care of a household of rescued animals probably has her hands more than full.

If you want to eat less meat, do more activism, finish your novel, or make another change in your life – that’s fine. Work on that, but don’t waste time and undermine yourself by feeling guilty or ashamed about your current situation. Rejoice, instead, that you still, after life’s hard knocks, retain the vision, courage and character to pursue such noble goals.

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