By Emily Smith
Assistant Opinion Editor
Before diving into this article, I want you to think about the worst mistake you have ever made. I understand that this is not something that is asked lightly; your worst mistake is not something most people enjoy thinking about. But, stick with me, and let yourself feel guilty in this moment with the understanding that every other reader (The Griffin has multiple readers, right?) has experienced the same feelings that you’re feeling right now. Let yourself sit with that guilt.
I don’t break the thinly-printed fourth wall just to make you feel uncomfortable (although I do understand that it is a necessary side-effect), but rather to make you wonder why you feel the guilt that you inevitably are feeling. As a psychology and sociology major, one of the things I enjoy doing is asking why people feel the way that they do about themselves and the people around them. Although I could go into the biopsychology of guilt, it wouldn’t do me any good for the sake of this article. What I do want, however, is to look at how guilt is socially constructed.
If you have ever talked to me about my opinions on, well, anything, you were probably informed that I think some part of every topic is socially constructed by societal norms. What this means is that the topic, or thing, does not have an inherent value besides the one that we as a society give it. This meaning is usually (but not always) agreed upon by the majority of people, or at least by those who are in power. For example, burping loudly in public doesn’t inherently carry the reality of being disgusting, but the general population deems it to be gross, and therefore, it is.
Continuing this same train of thought, when someone you don’t know burps loudly in public, you may turn to your friend and remark, “Wow, that person is disgusting,” which is a seemingly fair assumption to make. However, what about the person is disgusting? Yes, they just displayed a disgusting act, but is that label then automatically transferred from the act onto the person doing the act?
Let’s go back now to thinking about your worst mistake, shall we? (I am as uncomfortable as you are, I assure you.) I recognize that the worst thing I have ever done is far worse than burping loudly in public, and I would assume that yours is as well (although I hope for the sake of your conscience that it is not). Because we so easily slip labels from the act itself onto the person doing the act (remember the disgusting burping person), I’m sure that there has been a point in your life where you have done something bad and thought, “I am a bad person.”
I’ve heard a lot of cliché quotes in my lifetime, but one of my favorites is, “You are not your worst mistake.” Before recently, I didn’t find this to be true at all. I went around assigning the labels “good” and “bad” to people based on one or two things that I heard about them. I stayed away from people who I heard nasty gossip about; I told myself I would never be bad because I was just too good. But, of course, all of those habits were harmful to me, including (especially) thinking that I was too good to make mistakes.
After believing I was a good person for most of my time alive, I have, unfortunately, spent the last portion of my life telling myself I am a bad person because of bad things that I have done. I went right from thinking and labeling my actions to labeling myself as a human being. It seems only fair, right? A person does something disgusting in public because they are a disgusting person. I did bad things because I am a bad person.
Does this rhetoric sound familiar to anyone? I acknowledge the fact that I might be the only person on this whole campus who has ever felt this way (which I so hope is the case), but I hardly think that’s true. It seems like an endless cycle when you start thinking this way, doesn’t it? I do bad things because I’m a bad person, and because I am a bad person, I am going to do bad things. The cycle creates the problem. The person who is called gross overhears that they are called gross, associates that label with themselves, and is more likely to burp in public because that’s what people expect them to do.
But what if the bad things you’ve done don’t make you a bad person? If this were the case, then the good things you’ve done don’t make you a good person either. Without labels of “good” or “bad” to put on yourself or others, how will you know if what you or someone else is doing is appropriate? How will you understand the world? I, of course, have my own thoughts about this, which you can take or leave at your leisure.
Without “good” and “bad,” we are forced to see ourselves and those around us as an accumulation of the things that they have done. When you carry the understanding that humans are deeply flawed creatures, it’s easy to see that every person you will ever meet has done some really great things, and some other pretty terrible things. It’s just the nature of being alive.
And so we return to, “You are not your worst mistake.” It’s simple: you are not. You, like everyone in the entire world, have done bad things, but it certainly does not make you a bad person (barring, of course, murder and the like, but I don’t think you’d be hanging out at Canisius if that was your worst mistake). Obviously that’s not to say that you shouldn’t try to right your wrongs, or actively seek to not do harmful things, but there comes a point where what’s done is done, and all you’re left with is guilt. So let me repeat myself: the bad things you have done don’t make you a bad person. It’s a radical notion, but one that I find is necessary in order to live life as a fully compassionate individual. After all, being compassionate also means that you must be compassion towards yourself.
I will leave you with this: we are all flawed people who are a mix of the good and the bad that we’ve done. This complex and unstable mixture of the two poles is what makes humanity so special. Cherish this mixture, strive for the unattainable good, and most importantly, forgive, forgive, forgive.