“Do stuff. be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead.” ~ Susan Sontag
I’m sitting in my tiny Airbnb studio apartment in Marbella, propped up on the bed with pillows behind my back because there’s no room for a chair.
Contrary to headlines in the United Kingdom, Marbella is not burning. In fact, it’s a relatively mild 25 degrees.
The sun is hiding behind a light haze this morning. It’ll probably burn through later.
Through the window, I can see a tidy, lawned garden, a stout palm tree, and a creeper with pretty purple flowers. I love these whitewashed buildings. There is nowhere on earth—or nowhere I’ve yet visited—that makes me as happy as Spain does.
Marbella isn’t exactly my vibe. Puerto Banus, a short walk from where I’m staying, is affluent but trashy. The spiritual home of the G Wagon. Still, I’m in Spain, and that knowledge alone makes me grateful.
God willing, it’s the start of a three-month trip. I can’t afford to come to Spain and just rent an apartment for three months. Nor would I want to. Instead I’m doing Workaway.
If you’re not familiar with Workaway, it’s basically volunteering abroad. Usually five hours of work a day, five days a week. In exchange, you get bed and board. You also get to travel, meet new people, learn new things. Most people doing Workaway are in their 20s. I’m 49. Age doesn’t mean much to me. Maybe I’m a late bloomer.
But before Workaway, a few days holiday. It wasn’t planned this way. I’d planned to help out at a horse sanctuary from early July. But a slight delay on my end brought the host to a place of drama—my delay had messed up her arrangements apparently. Drama I can do without. So I swerve that one and now I start at a satsang centre next Saturday. I have no idea what it’ll be like or what tasks I’ll be doing, but it’s a spiritual community, and I feel safe and happy going there, open to whatever presents itself.
However, there’s a problem. The night before my flight, I get a call from my Mum’s carer. My Mum’s 84. She’s not well. She’s never well, but now she’s in screaming agony apparently, with sciatica. They’ve had the GP out. Painkillers have been administered. Don’t worry Love, there’s nothing you can do that’s not already being done, she says. You get on that plane, she says. We’ll look after her; you don’t need to worry.
And it’s true. They will look after her. I know that for a fact. They’ll look after her far better than I could. They’ve been caring for her for three years. They cared for my dad until he died last March. He had a three-month prognosis, which he outlived by two and a half years thanks to their love and support.
Still, I feel guilty. Or at least I feel something, and it doesn’t feel good.
But is it guilt?
I decide to investigate the sensations in the body. This is usually a good place to start. The body knows.
The body shows me a sort of imploding sensation around the third chakra area, discomfort in my right armpit, a tightening at the throat and across my forehead. As I feel these feelings, I have the sense that I’m doing something wrong. This is a familiar feeling for me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this feeling that I’m doing something wrong.
Then one day, I heard from a friend about guilt throwers and guilt catchers. This information was a doorway to another life for me. Maybe not a doorway, maybe a bridge. A long bridge that I’m still crossing. I’m getting closer to the other side every day.
Let’s say guilt is a sensation that lets us know when we’re doing something that doesn’t align with our own true values. There are other definitions, but I’m going with this one because it resonates with me.
False guilt, on the other hand, is a sensation that lets us know when we’re doing something that doesn’t align with someone else’s expectations or with society’s diktat.
Both are referred to as guilt, but they’re two wildly different things.
If you were brought up by someone who played the victim and used guilt to control you, then you’ve probably become a guilt catcher.
We can’t lay the blame with the guilt thrower here. That isn’t the point. These things are intergenerational. Who knows what that person went through in their own life, in their own childhood, that caused them to adopt this strategy. We’re all just trying to survive this life that can be challenging and difficult. This is no one’s bad.
It is worth noticing that the guilt thrower will not continue to throw the ball to someone who isn’t catching it. I mean, you just wouldn’t, would you?
So, why am I catching it? Why have I been putting my hands out to catch this ball I don’t even want for coming up to five decades now?
This is the tough part. This is not pretty. I have to be honest about my own motivations, which are not heroic, which feel grubby and small and inelegant.
The truth is, I want to be able to think of myself as a “good person,” a “good daughter.” I also want other people to think of me as a “good person” and a “good daughter.”
I don’t want this person to be angry with me if I don’t do what she wants. I don’t want her to bad-mouth me or to call me unkind when I do my own thing. I want to feel safe and loved.
So instead of standing my ground and speaking my honest “no,” I say yes. I say yes to anything just to retain this image of myself as good and kind. Just to feel safe.
I notice that I don’t wish to cancel my trip for the sake of my Mum’s sciatica. And I notice that I feel “guilty” about that.
I let the feeling get bigger and bigger in my body and, eventually, I let it burn through. It doesn’t take long. It’s over in less than five minutes. I have allowed the feeling to have its life. It’s what I’m working on at the moment. Allowing feelings to live instead of repressing them, instead of pushing them away. Because I know that if I repress them, they’ll be back to haunt me later.
I’ve had enough of being haunted by the past.
So here I am in Spain, on holiday. And there my Mum is, in the UK, with sciatica. I call her often. She tells me the pain is excruciating. The carer tells me she’s improving.
Do other people think I’m a selfish person for making this choice? I don’t know. I couldn’t possibly know what goes on in the minds of others.
The bigger question is: do I think I’m a selfish person for making this choice? A part of me does, a part of me does not. The truer part, the loving and compassionate and gracious part, does not. The other part, the anxious child who just wants to be loved? She does.
So I take her hand and I tell her she’s a beautiful, sweet, big-hearted child. I tell she has nothing to fear, that the people who are meant to love her always will and the others are on their own journey.
I tell her we don’t need society’s kiss on the forehead. We just need to honour our own heart as fully and as honestly as we can.