The Guilty Remnant

When I was a little kid, my parents would occasionally clash about my tendency to say “sorry” all the time. My dad thought I just figured if I said the word enough times, I could get away with anything. My mom though, she had figured out rather early on that I just felt immensely guilty every time I did the tiniest thing wrong or got in trouble. So, I would say sorry over and over again because I wanted to convey just how badly I felt to have screwed up.

My mom and I were recounting this today and it dawned on me I don’t really know where this tremendous sense of guilt came from. I always assumed it was your standard Catholic guilt, learned from my family after years of attending church. My mom was quick to point out that no one else in our family was like this though.

She’s right. My sister certainly doesn’t have this problem, and was in fact very adept at causing trouble without our parents ever finding out. I, on the other hand, could not sneak an extra cookie without eventually breaking down in a tearful confession.

My mother doesn’t exactly do much she needs to feel guilty about, but she certainly doesn’t stress about things. She can go with the flow, shrug things off, and, most remarkably, simply choose not to think about things that bother her.

The closest I had to a fellow guilt-ridden worry wart of a Welman was, funny enough, my dad. As my mom tells it, his mind raced all the time, but most of it was work-related stuff. His head was always spinning with ideas about computers and engineering, not so much with the interpersonal issues though.

Dolores, of course, blames the birthparents. “You were born with this overwhelming sense of guilt. I did not do that to you. You came that way.”

I raised an eyebrow at the suggestion it is primarily genetic to feel incredibly guilty anytime you screw up. The whole notion of guilt seems like a concept a child doesn’t grasp unless it is explained to them. I don’t think I just fundamentally understood that I should feel badly when I do something that hurts someone’s feelings or disobeyed my parents. So, what my mom said initially sounded pretty ridiculous to me.

She elaborated though, and that is where she got me.

“Your anxious nature is one hundred percent inherited. As long as I can remember, you’ve been an anxious, nervous person, even as a little kid. No matter what I tried to teach you, I couldn’t undo it, so yeah, that is inherited. You’d be surprised how much people are determined by genetics, Jessica.”

She makes a good point, which is basically that my personality is more inclined to latch on to the concept of guilt at a young age, setting me up for a life of feeling a little plagued by it. So, while my excessively guilty conscience does seem like something I picked up at church or from too many after school specials, my worrisome personality that primed me to fall prey to the concept, came upon delivery.

I often wonder how a kid like me, who is so drastically different from my parents and my sibling came to be. It seems too simple to just write it off to genetics. Certainly biologically related people can have a wide range of personalities, right? You couldn’t plunk me in any old family and have me develop a massively guilty conscience every single time.  My very straight-laced parents had to make a difference, being Catholic had to make a difference.

The question is how much of a difference? I will never know my birthparents, so it is tough to tell,  but maybe my mom is right that many of the things I thought were learned behaviors began with inclinations in my personality that are entirely inherited. I hope that more of it is learned than my mom suspects, because it would sadden me to think I don’t stand as much of a chance at being the genuinely good people my mom and dad are/were.  I don’t want to think they won’t rub off on me as much as I thought they would. I don’t want to let the family down after all. Learned or not, disappointing them is the kind of thing I would be just racked with guilt about.


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