How to Live a Guilt-Free Life

Be completely ignorant of the cause-and-effect, interconnectedness of life and how your choices impact far more than yourself (often negatively).

OR

Live so in touch with the interconnectedness of life that everything you do is only for the benefit of others in that process, thus leaving you out of touch with modern-day society.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I will not be expounding on either of those points, so, either this will be a short blog post, or I will be writing about a life that is not quite free of guilt.

I’m going to go with the latter.

Approximately one month and twelve days ago, I returned to the United States from a two-week trip in Russia and a two-year Peace Corps service in Mongolia.  I was ready to be home, and I’m certainly not ready to go back.  Since being home, I have indulged in every way that pleases me: eating ice cream when I feel like it, going to movies when I want, visiting friends far and near just because I can now, using the microwave to heat up my food rather than the stove top (or not at all), taking showers once a day, using a washer and dryer instead of handwashing my clothes…  the list goes on.  If I’ve had a whim, I most likely have acted on it.  America has so much that I just wanted to take advantage of it.

But after a surprisingly short amount of time, I started getting that internal tick, the one that makes me hesitate before I do something I know isn’t the best or makes me recoil once I’ve already done it.  I guess this tick is usually called guilt, but it seems weird to me that guilt kicks in before I even do anything wrong.  I guess that’s just called a conscience.  Whatever.  The point is, I’m getting it back.

I had it before I moved to Mongolia, trying all different kinds of eating patterns to be more health-conscious or land-conscious or farmer-conscious.  I went through a phase of only buying clothes made in America so as not to support sweat shops (and then I learned even America has sweat shops).  I brought all my bags to the grocery store so I never had to choose between paper and plastic.  I took the bus when I could, rarely watched TV (and only watched Turner Classic Movies when I did), read up on all sorts of conscientious, holistic, activist type activities and ideas, and even tried convincing others to do all of the same (aside from TCM, because that’s just for people who get it).  My conscience was getting to me.  And probably to everyone I annoyed with my preachings.

But when I moved to Mongolia, it became a little quieter.  I couldn’t think too critically about my choices because I didn’t have many choices to begin with.  In fact, sometimes I had no choice at all.  I know that burning coal pollutes the air and that mining it hurts the land, but I chose my own warmth and survival over those minor facts.  It’s easy to point out their harm when I don’t rely on them, but otherwise, I’ll just let them go.  Similarly, when my only option was to throw my trash into my hashaa‘s trash can for it to be burned, I did it.  Recycling?  I only knew that word in terms of reusing jars to catch leaking rainwater in my ger.  It was not in a concept over there.  In a weird way, my world became so much smaller.  I could only see survival, work, and relationships– nothing else.  It’s true that I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have a television; I didn’t waste water because I barely had any to begin with.  But there was still plenty of waste, and carbon footprints don’t go away just because you don’t think about them anymore.

Still, I thought that I would go on feeling guiltless.  Some things even validated that idea, like this article.  It’s about a former Peace Corps volunteer, Eric Kiefer, who served in Mongolia and a book he wrote based on his experience.  At the end of the article, he says this:

“I found myself lingering under hot showers, amazed and supremely thankful at the miracle of indoor plumbing. I found myself spending hours at the supermarket, laughing aloud because there is 16 different brands of white bread. It was a crazy time in my life. And euphoric,” Kiefer said. “It was like being in the on-deck circle and swinging that heavy, leaded bat, then stepping up to the plate and taking a cut with your normal lumber and being suddenly surprised at your own strength. It’s an experience that kind of fades away a little with time and acclimation to modern American life… I’ve never felt guilty about living in modern America since. Things are tough all over. And that’s both sad and OK, at the same time.”

I agreed with him.  I didn’t feel guilty when I was living in Mongolia, so I thought I would continue to living in America.  Whenever I happened to be in a place with running, hot water or air conditioning or tasty, imported food, I had no qualms about taking it all in.  I justified my indulgences by acknowledging how rarely they occurred and by how hard I was working the rest of the time at just getting by; I had to put so much effort into living with so little that using more than my fair share on occasion didn’t feel like such a big deal; I was paying for it in a sense.  But now that I’m back home, I don’t struggle; I don’t have to work at surviving or dealing with major obstacles of everyday survival. I have it pretty easy. Like Kiefer said, I’m back to swinging the normal lumber, but now I have no need even to practice with the heavy lead.  I can finally put it all in perspective, gaining back my ability to think critically about my choices because, well, I actually have some to make.

It’s possible I would have continued in my America-induced fog longer than I did had I not chosen to read some essays by Wendell Berry.  That man just has to go and shove every preconceived, comfortable notion we let ourselves be fooled by in our faces to make us uncomfortable and think just a bit harder about the way we’re living.  It kind of hurts.  I want to say: Let’s just relax, Wendell.  Let’s let things take their course and not feel so dang guilty about it.  But I can almost hear him say: Therein lies the problem!  By letting things ‘take their course,’ we let those who don’t have our best interest or the land’s best interest or interest of the generations to come in mind take the reins, and allow ourselves to believe–through ignorance–that all is well OR that we have no part in this whole mess.  But WE DO!  

The thing that really gets me about Wendell Berry is that he doesn’t always offer answers.  He shows what the problems are and where our thinking is wrong, but he doesn’t tell us how to fix it.  So this is where I am now: wondering exactly what steps I should take to reduce my part in the negative cycles we are all caught up in while remaining accountable in the positive cycles, such as relationships with other humans.  It’s not just that I can eat organic; organic can be just as bad as non-organic (have you read Omnivore’s Dilemma?).  And I can’t just find out what my body needs and go with that because that could mean I’m eating the main staple of someone else’s diet that should never have even made it to me in the first place (think: the quinoa crisis).  I’m pretty sure I can’t stop driving my car because not many places in this country have good enough public transportation to be reliable.  And going off the grid? Yea right.  I was the closest I’ve ever been, living in Mongolia, and that was hard work.  Not just blistered hands, sore back type of hard work but also must-miss-out-on-some-events-in-life-because-my-home-life-requires-so-much-time type of work.   Off the grid in real terms also means disconnecting from certain relationships, some of which are only kept thanks to the magic of technology; I learned–while living so far away from those closest to me–that I don’t ever want to disconnect from relationships again.

However, I know, deep down, that not being able (or willing, if I’m honest) to go all out in working to save the planet doesn’t justify going all in with the processes at work that are killing us all.  I like showering, but maybe I can work on taking shorter or less frequent showers to conserve water (thanks, Flow).  I will continue to refuse to eat meat because it’s easier than picking and choosing the meat that is actually produced in a humane way, but it will be harder to choose the vegetables and various foodie favs that haven’t been grown at the expense of someone else’s health and life.  And I need to get back into the habit of remembering who made the clothes I’m putting on and the conditions in which they made them because I am paying for them to live poorly; it is my fault when I buy more and more and more.

There’s a Kenyan proverb (look for it if you ever find yourself in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City) that says, “Treat the Earth well.  It was not given to you by your parents; it was loaned to you by your children.” How prophetic?  It’s almost as if we should work backwards to make this place even better than we found it when it’s put that way, and we can only do that with the choices we make in living our lives.  Choices in this country in this day and age are almost a trademark of our ‘freedom,’ but we have to be willing to make hard choices that might feel restrictive to us if we can think about their effect on others in this world (and those who follow).  I don’t want to run away from that responsibility,  even if that means I carry some amount of guilt.  I don’t want to be let off the hook because I don’t want to give up hope for positive changes.  I just don’t know how that looks in my life.

So now that my conscience is back, loud as ever, I’ll probably keep annoying others about what it’s telling me. I’ll keep questioning and forgetting the big picture by focusing on one part of it and still trying to work toward progression in a strange, zig-zag sort of pattern, and I’ll probably keep blabbering about the whole process to whoever will listen.  Because I’m carrying that guilt.  But I’m not the only guilty one.

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