Guilt: The Way We Punish Ourselves

In seventh grade, we read the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The poem tells the story of a group of sailors and a ship that finds itself off course in dangerous waters. An albatross appears and leads the ship to safety, serving as a good luck charm. But one mariner doesn't see the albatross as a talisman and shoots the bird out of the sky. A curse immediately falls over the ship. The sailors become stuck in the Pacific Ocean without any water and blame the mariner for their doom and misfortune.  As punishment for killing their good luck charm, the sailors make the mariner wear the albatross around his neck as a constant reminder of his actions.

The albatross is a metaphor for a burden of guilt that is so powerful that it feels like a curse. Some of us wear our own version of the albatross by the people we choose to have around us. We ingest their problems, worries, and burdens, in addition to those of our kids or loved ones. In other words, we take on way more responsibility than we are supposed to carry.  We become the fixers, the problem-solvers, or the bread winners. But we can sometimes misunderstand or misconstrue what we choose to put up with as our punishment for a choice we made in the past. It becomes our albatross, our karma, our way of punishing ourselves for having indulged in inappropriate behavior, vices or relationships or for straying from the wishes of our family or our own values.

Our burden can also become our badge of honor, how we make ourselves feel worthy of being loved. We take on an extra burden to feel useful, needed, and to prove that we deserve to be loved or to prove to ourselves that we made the right decision to love who we love.

The question becomes whether the mariner would have cut loose the albatross if he had been able to? Or would he have continued to choose to relive his choice by cloaking himself in his own past?

How many of us are choosing to carry our own albatross because it serves a purpose in some way? The albatross serves as an anchor that preserves the past and prevents the future from occurring. It keeps us from moving forward. It prevents us from possibility and happiness. The heaviness and burden can only be cut loose by the person who put the albatross around your neck in the first place: You. Ask yourself if it is worth holding on to the emotions that inhibit happiness: guilt, anger, insecurity, resentment, and fear? Or are you making the choice to hang on to your albatross?