I don’t know anyone that doesn’t carry around some guilt. It could be over anything– a youthful transgression, or a major adult screw-up or something in between. We respond to guilt in different ways. I’ll tell you a story that I can only share now because I’ve had time to look at it through an adult lens, and because I’m actually friends now with the other person involved, who has every right to hate me, even 22 years later.
When I was in 5th grade, I went to a boarding school in Western Massachusetts for one year. My roommate was this girl, a perfectly nice girl, that we found annoying. I mean, we were all probably annoying but for whatever reason, she became the target of our collective bullying and teasing. I’d like to believe that I was a better person than that but I was just as immature as the rest of them. One day, in the locker room, after swimming, this girl and I got into a little spat… my memory is a little hazy on this point. I don’t remember what triggered it, what was said and all that. But I remember feeling VERY annoyed and pushing her into a wall. The end result was that she broke a tooth and had a bloody nose. For years, I felt that I had pushed her into the wall on purpose and I felt a tremendous amount of guilt. When I was hauled off to the main office, I felt so bad that I threw up all over the office. I’ve always felt my guilt in my stomach, in the form of intense butterflies. We were separated as roommates and I don’t think we spoke much for the rest of that year.
Fast-forward to 2007. Everyone was on Facebook, or getting on board with it. I don’t remember who reached out to who but this girl and I are friends on Facebook today. I apologized profusely for what I had done to her, and she graciously brushed it off. A few months ago, I found myself reflecting on the incident and realized somethings that I had not been aware of, through my myopic youthful lens. One, I was a bully and she was bullied. At the time, it didn’t register in my head as bullying. It wasn’t the buzzword then that it is now. Two, I realize now that I probably didn’t mean for her face to meet the wall, that what really happened is that I pushed her with much harder force than I realized. This doesn’t make anything better, really and in fact, only serves to make me feel that more guilty but at least, I can take some solace in the fact that messing up her face wasn’t premeditated…
And so what have I done with this guilt all these years, guilt that I still carry? It’s become a part of me and it doesn’t take much to flashback on it and remember the horrible feeling of being so mean to someone, for pretty much no good reason. I should probably forgive myself at this point but I think of it as a tool that helps to keep me in check, a reminder that no one deserves to be treated that way–it’s a cliche maybe to say this but it was truly character-building.
When I finished reading The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, the first word that came to mind was absolution. It seemed to me that Noa was carrying around her guilt like a penance. Her silence and refusal to defend herself is a form of absolution. She felt that whatever came her way was deserved, even if no one else understood why. In the end, her guilt consumed her, in more ways than one.