I doubt any of us would argue that guilt can sometimes be a useful tool to help us know when we should apologize or change the course of our actions. But what about the collective guilt felt by a group over something that happened many years ago? Trust me, this is a real phenomenon. When my family lived in Germany, we encountered it on several occasions. I remember my neighbor becoming agitated when I mentioned to her in passing that during our trip to Munich we had visited Dachau. She asked me why I would take my children there. It took me at least 15 minutes to calm her down and move on to another topic. After that, I was very careful not to mention anything remotely connected to the Holocaust to my German neighbors.
As a lover of history, I do tend to reflect on things in the past that I don’t want to ever see happen again. Many of those things happened right here in our own country. As Americans, we have much to be proud of as a nation but we also have our share of collective guilt. Especially over the treatment of the Native Americans, the practice of slavery and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. I remember shrinking back in my desk in elementary school when our class was on the topic of slavery because I knew that my ancestors had owned slaves. I cried when my class studied the Trail of Tears. And I’ll never forget my grandfather telling me that even though his family had been German immigrants, he was an officer in the US Navy during the war while those of Japanese descent were taken to camps. “It was because they looked different and I didn’t,” he told me while shaking his head slowly back and forth recalling the unfairness of it.
So much of what happens in this world is unfair. People are often in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe they are simply the “wrong” color or gender to be regarded as equal in a time or place. Or perhaps they pray to the “wrong” God to be considered worthy of respect. I am an optimist, so maybe we can learn from the past; but watching the news these days only makes my optimism seem downright foolish. But is “guilt” the answer? I personally think that guilt often paralyzes a person from moving on with life in a positive way. Unless we allow it to push us forward to live better in the future, it is just a futile emotion. It also victimizes the group of people that were mistreated. Seeing oneself as a victim is seldom a healthy psychological state of being.
Instead of collective guilt, I want to be a part of moving forward and learning from the past. I love history and historical research. Obviously as a writer I love historical fiction. I don’t choose to “opt in” to collective guilt over things that happened long before my birth. Instead, I think I will move on and face the challenges facing our generation and the ones to follow. I love the way my kids and their friends view the world. They don’t even seem to notice the physical traits, beliefs or lifestyles that make us different. Maybe their generation will be the one to end collective guilt and move on.