Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Guilt. Who needs it?

I do, apparently, because I can't seem to let it go.

I was reminded yesterday of the last course I taught. My anxiety in full throttle, I cancelled more classes than I should have because I convinced myself that somehow I could not get through them. I would procrastinate my preparation, cobble together a lesson plan the night before, and lose myself to panic in the morning. It was a cycle I repeated week after week, until finally -- after receiving the first negative evaluations ever in eleven semesters of teaching -- I gave up. Resigned my teaching assignment for the spring. And I've felt guilty ever since.

For a while I just told myself that teaching wasn't for me. "I'm a terrible teacher" became the go-to loop running through my head. But here's what I've come to: I'm not a terrible teacher. In fact, I'm a rather good teacher, but I made poor decisions and didn't seek the right support. There's also no sugar-coating the other stuff: I failed to give those students a proper course, and as much as I want to comfort myself with the thought that they've probably forgotten all about it by now, the truth is that I don't know, and I'll never know. I have to be o.k. with the fact that I messed up. I made a mistake.

A therapist once told me to substitute the critical voice in my head with a kinder one: "What would you say to a friend who was going through your situation?" she asked. I was reminded of Geneen Roth's approach, referring to yourself as "darling" or "sweetheart." Geneen suggests that when stress drives you to that third piece of chocolate cake, simply say to yourself: "Honey, you're feeling empty, it's true. But it probably isn't hunger." Sometimes I eat that third piece of cake. But sometimes I choose to feel whatever it is that's masquerading as appetite. 

So I say to myself, "Sweetheart? Here's the thing. You taught a pretty terrible course, and you may or may not have turned those kids against reading for life. Please accept it, and please move on." But I don't accept it, and I don't move on, and it's not just that failure of a semester, either. I'm torn up with guilt over a million insignificant and yet apparently wholly crucial events. And the worst guilt of all? That my life is filled to the brim with blessings -- I have my health and my family, and it's springtime out there for goodness sake -- and yet I'm mired in the should-haves and why-didn't-Is.

Suddenly I understand what Marianne Williamson meant when she said that the fear at our very core is not that we are "inadequate  . . . [but] that we are powerful beyond measure." If I dare to shed the guilt, to accept the past and focus on this one moment now, the only moment that ever really exists, what if I find that it's not enough? That I'm still not fulfilled? Wallowing in guilt ain't a pleasure cruise, but at least it's familiar. I want to know for sure that if I break out of the old, unproductive cycles that I'll feel better, more at peace. I want guarantees.

And so I leave you with no pronouncements grasping at a moral, no assurances that I'll do better next time. I'm just going to breathe. And possibly pet a cat or two.


  1. Exactly. The best advice I've ever received was to be as forgiving to myself as I would be to someone else.

  2. Fancy, absolutely everybody--and most especially everybody within the t.a. system you and I come from--has dropped the ball on a class or two along the way. Really and truly. But not everybody cares as much as you obviously do. The fact that you are still mulling this over months later says to me that you are wired to be a fantastic, invested teacher. (And we should talk sometime about my first lit class and the Crisis of Faith of Fall 2008.)

  3. It's like you wrote what's been on my mind lately. I think we should get tea again and talk it out :) Hugs to you!

  4. I love how much you care about teaching. It's totally inspiring.

  5. I agree with "unlikely". I would expand it to say that everybody in every field has dropped the ball. I know I have. I would also say that if you're still feeling guilty, that's okay too. Maybe it's serving you in some way...and maybe, having now written about it, it will ease off a bit.

    Petting cats always helps.

  6. Allison: It sounds so easy, doesn't it? Harder to put into practice, though.

    U.A.: I definitely would love to hear about the 2008 Crisis of Faith! And thanks for the reassurance. Of course, in my head I'm thinking, "Yeah, but nobody dropped the ball quite as badly as I did." but then I'm sure that's what everyone else thinks, too.

    Erin: Yes, please. Your recent series has got me thinking about body stuff again...afternoon tea is definitely in order.

    Cassie: That's really sweet of you to say. I do care about teaching, but I also care a bit too much about what other people think of me. It's one thing to tell yourself that you've failed, but to hear it from other people? There's the rub, you know?

    Karen: I think you're right. Maybe I need to get curious about how exactly it's serving me. And petting the cats did help. :-)

  7. I, too, think it would be interesting to consider what would happen if the guilt wasn't there- what would you pursue, how would you live without it? And does the guilt serve you from pursuing those things, living in that way in some way? (That question makes sense in my head, it may not here). Wishing you perseverance through the journey.