KENNY, IT WAS Kenny I turned to first. I had been thinking about it, thinking quite a bit about it, actually, and so when I saw Kenny standing near my desk, bearded and looking wise in an old world sort of way. I walked right up to him and blurted it out: "Kenny," I asked, "can you have a good time? Can you really enjoy yourself?" He looked at me with surprise. "Can I have a good time?" he echoed. "Can I have a good time?" he echoed. "Can I have a good time?" this time a bit louder. He paused, He looked around. He spoke. "Of course not." I was so relieved.
There it was. Make what you will of it, but I had been carrying this thing around in my head for months, thinking that I was the only one. I said not a word to anyone, nothing since Italy where it had really manifested itself, and I thought, therefore, that maybe it was just me. But here was Kenny saying it was not just me. It was him, too. I asked more questions.
"When you're really having a good time do you become conscious of how good a time you're having and then feel suddenly guilty?"
"Yes. Yes, that's it."
"Is it guilt?" Is it pain? Is it anxiety?"
"Yes, guilt, Yes, pain. Yes, anxiety. Who can have a good time? A really good time is a bad time.
I nodded."Yes. Yes. That's it, exactly."
Italy - did I mention Italy? It was there that it hit, came on strong, very nearly overhwhelmed me on one occasion. I was on vacation and the Mediterranean was sparkling, acting like a proper travel poster and I was with people I love. The wine was perfect and the sky was blue and I was so happy I was absolutely miserable. Guilty! It was wrong to be having such a good time. How about those who could not do this? How about generations past and the people you've left behind and the work that was not being done? I said nothing. I kept it all to myself.
After Kenny, though, I got bolder. I talked to another friend. At first he was puzzled, but then he caught the drift of what I was saying and he said it was the same with him, too. He usually feels guilty whenever things are going well. Lately, things have been going well. He's miserable. We were on the phone and his wife picked up the extension. She told me about a former boyfriend who had a real crisis whenever he really enjoy himself. Give this boy a perfect day and it was curtains. She described a picnic they went on that sounded so perfect. I understood right off why the poor guy was miserable. Who can cope with such a good time?
The she said she had something else to say - a theory. She was cautious with me because she knows that I am no fan of Sigmund Frued, thinking all in all, that the world would have been better off if Freud had specialized in Pediatrics instead of psychiatry, but what she had to say really made sense. She said this feeling of guilt is really about our parents.We live much better than they did, she said. They suffered for us. We have done it the easy way with no sweat, no depression, no steerage - no nothing. We have had everything.Life on a silver platter. College. The Pill. Everything. No wonder we feel guilty.
Now I am wondering. It isn't just me, after all. Three other people, not to mention some nameless former boyfriend, know what I am talking about. I ask a fourth person and he, too joins the little group, but when a colleague asks me what I am talking about, I say he would not understand. I say it might be an ethnic thing. He is black. He insists I tell him. I do. He becomes indignant.
Guilt! What do I know about guilt? Aren't most blacks still poor? Didn't his father bust his . . .? Did I know what his mother's life was like? How she was treated? How she lived? The indignities she suffered? Don't tell him about guilt. Guilt? No white person could know about such guilt?
I slink off. Ok, now I am dealing with a black-Jewish thing. It's like the old civil rights alliance. It gives me a warm feeling. I press on. People come back from vaction and I am there, perched like a vulture, asking The Question: Did you really enjoy yourself? First they say yes, but then I learn of guilt trips in Morocco and Spain and Mexico and even, would you believe, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A colleague comes over and says he has heard of my new interest. He tells me not to exclude Catholic guilt. A woman warns me to include Protestant guilt. Nothing like it she says. She shudders and walks off.
I call my friend, the Georgetown shrink. What's going on? I ask. He knows right off what I'm talking about. He has patients, he says, who buy clothes they will not wear. Guilt. He has other patients who won't take vacation unless they're working vacations. Guilt. All this is an American sickness. I am in the mainstream.
The shrink and I talk it over. This is a terrible feeling, he says. I agree. Little can be done for it, he says. What a shame, says I. We go on this way, me commenting on the seriousness of it all, feeling more and more guilty because there is something I haven't told him. I sort of like my guilt. I mean, it's me and I feel comfortable with it. For a time, I thought I was alone with a colleague who said she, too, enjoys her guilt.
"I've already given up smoking," she said. "I'm not going to give up guilt, too."
I was so relieved.