I remember the first time I stood in a grocery aisle after our Covid-19 numbers dropped in Switzerland, feeling my breath actually leave my body, billowing under my mask, while browsing cat treats. I wasn’t quite so afraid anymore, and my shoulders half-released. But still, I felt bad.
Why should I enjoy the privilege of open-ended time in a pet aisle, or a hoola-hoop aisle, or a garden tools aisle, browsing various things meant to encourage non-essential activity, when my friends back home in America cannot leave the house?
I wish I could partially release my guilt. On the other hand, I wish Donald Trump had more of it.
This week, Trump tweeted, “With the exception of New York & a few other locations, we’ve done MUCH better than most other Countries in dealing with the China Virus.”
He thinks he can distract us. He thinks we’ll forget that the White House pandemic coordinator Dr Deborah Birx just warned of a new widespread phase of the virus. He thinks we’ll overlook the fact that he has lost the Covid battle by losing the lives of more men, women and children than any other country, doubling what he predicted in April; by misleading, misinforming the public first in February about the virus’s risk. He thinks we’ll forget that in March he downplayed the risk of the virus again, even suggesting people with Covid go to work.
And I start to wonder, might it be beneficial for Trump to possess a little guilt? Because he's making me feel a lot of shame.
“You must feel glad to be there, in Switzerland,” US friends still say. They live largely on the East and West Coasts. I pause trying to decide how to respond.
Sort of, I think. I don’t tell them about the bike ride I took yesterday in the Alps leading me to a clifftop cafe where I sat and had drinks with my kids. I stay silent when they talk about schools not opening in many districts. I don’t remind anyone of the fact that my kids ended the school year in a school building last spring, not because I did anything right but because the Swiss government didn’t lie to its people. They acted swiftly enough—closing borders, businesses, schools and public transportation, to prevent the spread of Covid from continuing to climb. Even then, many criticised the government here for not moving fast enough. Every life is valuable. Everyone lost matters.
And I feel guilt.
In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, June Tangey, professor of psychology at George Mason University, who has studied guilt for decades, joined other scientists researching how “guilt proneness was associated with constructive means of handling anger, including constructive intentions, corrective action and non-hostile discussion...” Tangey has pointed, in several books and studies, to the fact that guilt can become a morally adaptive feeling.
It’s what we do with our guilt that’s the tricky part.
Guilt helps us to reflect on how our lifestyles and behaviour might affect others. If Trump felt guilt, would he feel bad about how his non-mask-wearing behaviour harmed thousands? Would he feel remorse over the fact that he didn’t race for test kits soon enough, so that people like my 78-year-old mom couldn’t get tested, while she suffered with pneumonia for months this last spring in South Carolina? Would Trump feel deep remorse about how he’s leading the US into death, joblessness and catastrophe?
As William Neblett said in the Journal of Philosophy, “... guilt is sometimes a critical factor in the motivation to right action, but, on the other hand, it can be a critical motivator in the effort to wrong action.”
In August I’ll read my essay in Zürich on the importance of Voting Rights, particularly for women and BPOC. Though my action is small in comparison to the enormity of our nation’s challenges, and even in comparison to the guilt I carry, it gives me a sense of empowerment. I believe that voting and encouraging others to vote is one very right action anyone can take against the very wrong things related to the virus and recent enormous mistakes made in the US regarding use of police force, federal troops and the historic, systemic racism. I feel that I, along with every American living with privilege, has collectively allowed many of these aspects of government and society to reach this point, including the election of Trump.
I tell my children, my friends in Switzerland— don’t feel guilt. It’s a waste of time. It’s important to appreciate every bit of freedom and privilege that you’re afforded these days. Who knows when that super-soft toilet paper might disappear again, for heaven's sake. You never can be sure when we won’t be able to buy flowers again. Who can say if we’ll get sent back home to learn with the kids on their computers. Enjoy the lakes, dears. Enjoy.
But I don’t tell them that I still feel guilt. And though I’ll take my walks in the mountains and I’ll thank every day in the pet aisle, I’ll try my best to take some right action.
Vote. Vote if you're a US citizen, from wherever you live, including if you live abroad. Vote so that every last one of us can make something right out of something very wrong this year.