A really interesting thing has happened over the past few weeks. I have had numerous of my lovely friends speak up about their experience of feeling guilty about their privilege.
One noted that he felt guilty about the overseas adventures he was having. Another reported feeling guilty that she was having trouble choosing between two attractive possible life paths. One stated that a beautiful wedding present brought her a sense of guilt because of the degree of appreciation and value she had for the object.
Privileged guilt has come my way on and off throughout my life. And I think it was one of the reasons behind my declaration at school that when I grew up I was going to “change the world”. Oh Sam. You duffer.
I remember becoming aware of some of the systemic injustices and inequalities in the world when I was pretty young – like in primary school – and feeling uncomfortable with my place in it. Why did I have a nice and loving family when some of my classmates did not? How come I was able to sleep safely and soundly at night, but my friends not many kilometres away had a different experience? I was told that it was because I was “lucky”. But how did I happen to come across this luck just by being born? Was I deserving of said “luck”? It was difficult for a young brain to comprehend.
There have been countless other times where I have felt guilty about my privilege. Because the truth is that I am really privileged. I was born with significantly more chips to play in the poker game of life. There are parts of my white, upper middle class, sexual, able-bodied identity that are unearned benefits because they are special perks granted to me by the society that I live in.
Despite the fact that I often benefit from these perks, I find it disturbing. And a lot of people around me do too. There are however others that I know, whom appear somewhat oblivious to their unearned advantages and appear to hold onto them with an attitude of entitlement. I reckon these people though feel pretty comfortable – or at least no discomfort or angst upon receiving such special treatment.
If push came to shove though and I had to choose between living a privileged life and experiencing periods of guilt about this or living a privileged life blissfully unaware of how these privileges affect my life, I would still choose the first. Because only by recognising inequality, do we stand a chance to change it in someway. But what then should we do with this existential guilt?
First and foremost, probably do not do as I have done.
During my episodes of depression my guilt levels are usually pretty insurmountable. There is very little I didn’t feel guilty about. But in particular, I often became stuck feeling guilty about my current state or feelings because “someone somewhere” has it much, much worse.
And I also felt really guilty about the treatment I received.
Because I have been ‘lucky’ and privileged enough to be able to access treatment through the private mental health system. Private health insurance has meant greater options, easier and quicker access, more choices and longer-term and more cohesive treatment.
Again, private health insurance was something I hadn’t necessarily earned myself. Early on in my depression career, my wonderful parents had paid for it.
But at the time, it became another source of guilt. Were my problems big enough to warrant all this treatment when people experiencing really significant mental illness were receiving minimal care in the public system? Could all these wonderful health professionals be using their time to help others more in need? Am I burdening a system that is already struggling to keep up with demand?
And all this guilt fed into the other layers of guilt and I became defeated.
Privileged or existential guilt can become pretty unhealthy if we let it, because it can begin to rationalise inaction. Healthy guilt often assists us to take action on things we want to change – ride our bicycle to the shop, buy less plastic, eat healthier foods. But with my episodes of depression the layers of guilt continued to grow and the crushing sense of guilt became insurmountable. There were things wrong with both me and with the way the world works and there was a gnawing sense that changing anything about this would be impossible. The apathy crept in and things felt hopeless.
But here’s the thing – no one wins in this situation. No one. I don’t get any better engaging in this existential guilt. The person experiencing significant mental illness in the public health system doesn’t receive better treatment because of my feelings of guilt. Despite the compassion that I or my friends feel for people who are not as privileged as we are, no one becomes less homeless or less hungry or more loved by us feeling guilty this way. No one suffers less.
We are all born with privilege of one kind or another. We learn prejudice and we discriminate. Even when we try our very hardest not to, we can all cause harm to others in some way – directly or indirectly – one day or another. Perhaps our goal is to pay attention to these privileges and prejudices and make more informed choices. No matter how hard we try, no matter how much we believe ourselves to be vigilant allies of everyone everywhere, we will continue to make mistakes and perpetuate what privileges we have. Trying to change who we are, ignoring our privilege in the hopes it will go away, hasn’t done much good this far. Perhaps the real key is in admitting our flaws and naming our prejudices.
Instead of getting caught up in a loop of guilt and idleness, we can make a difference by releasing ourselves from the impossible burden of fixing every problem for all the “someones somewhere”. Rather than obsessing about how different our world is compared to world outside of ourselves, we can use our insight to take small actions to dismantle the structures that support our privilege. Maybe we should start simply. By changing the way we show up in the world.