Things I wish I’d been punished for (Part One)

Okay, maybe that title sounds a little odd. This is the first in a series of those “confessional” posts I seem to do nowadays, in which I will continue looking back at  parts of my life and seeing if there’s anything to learn from them.

Things I wish I’d been punished for? Setting aside any jokes about having been a naughty boy and needing a spanking — the fact is that there are certain things I can now see were harmful to me, not because I did them, but because I got away with them.

So what? A fair question. Wouldn’t it be better to be glad I was never punished for exercising my free will? The answer is yes and no. Punishment works best when it’s internalized by the punished, that is, when the law doesn’t need to step in and make a show out of the punishment. (Thanks, Foucault!) If you send a guy to jail and he learns nothing, and leaves jail only to commit the same offense again, not much has been accomplished. But if he repents on his own, he’s likelier to change for the better.

On the other hand, sometimes the only way to grow the hell up is to be called out on something you’ve done. I know, from my experience, that this can end up being unimaginably painful, and also helpful.

We are not culturally programmed to ask for forgiveness. Confession is a narcissistic practice nowadays, and it is often done publicly, as an odd blend of PR campaigning and ego-protection. In other words, confession is not a part of atonement anymore. Maybe in AA meetings. I don’t know. This post isn’t about asking for forgiveness, and the confessional aspect will, I hope, serve mainly to put the lessons into their proper contexts.

There are things I wish I hadn’t been allowed to get away with. For the most part, they never seemed major at the time, but getting away with them had a poisonous effect on my understanding of the world. Here they are.

1) Believing that feeling guilty made me a good person

This was one of the overriding problems I can find with the way I used to see myself. All the way through my childhood and even into my late teens, I was somehow able to stay convinced that the basic fact that I felt guilty about everything kept me safe from being a bad person. This let me, paradoxically, commit most of my misdeeds.

I wasn’t much of a liar or thief, but when, for instance, I did fudge the truth, a few days of agonized contemplation would follow. I would fear getting caught — and fear it terribly. I’d imagine someone finding out and reporting on me. I’d have ongoing discussions with myself throughout the night about the impact of my terrible action. And although I really did suffer, in a way you can only call pathetic when you’re not drunk on your own self-pity, that very suffering allowed me to feel faultless and as though I did not need to change. Okay, I’d done a bad thing, but check out the self-flagellation that ensued! How could I possibly be considered lacking in moral awareness?

Which meant that I trained myself to see every bad thing I did as a one-off incident, sure to be properly atoned for later, and not worth analyzing in the general scheme of events. By making a huge deal about individual actions, I made no big deal at all about my character.

Someone should have caught me doing something like that, on at least a couple of those occasions. If I had been able to atone, not to myself, but to someone else (someone who probably didn’t give even a tenth of a damn, compared to me) then I’d have been able to deal with the practical consequences of my actions instead of soaring to the greatest metaphysical heights, trying to converse with angels about the perfectibility of the human animal. Just slap me on the wrist, get me in trouble, make me sit in the corner. Something that involved the outside world. What’s the point in having a moral code if you don’t pay attention to the people that code affects?

2) Looking down on people

Almost everyone seems to look down on others. Spend enough time with someone and you’ll eventually see it. I wish I had been forced to confront my motivations for looking down on two types of people in particular: the unambitious and the relaxed.

Although I may never have felt particularly compelled to have a career of the kind often associated with having made it in life, I was always ambitious. I went much further than many of the kids around me at school, and if I wanted better grades, I got them; if I was going to be a writer, I was going to be a novelist, not a short-story writer. If I was going to run, I’d someday become a marathoner. If I was going to make music, it would be long, inaccessible, critically acclaimed music. Anyone who didn’t at least aspire to some kind of significance was worthy of some contempt.

For the record, to date, all my published work has been on the short side (even the books); I am a much better sprinter than I am a long-distance runner, and my music is only getting more commercial. So, at the level of simple fact, my ambitions exceeded my abilities.

But even if I’d somehow managed to accomplish everything I’d set out to do, there was never a good reason to look down on those who seemed not to have any ambition at all. That aspect of my personality, which was most pronounced in the two or three years after I left school, was entirely a result of my own problems.

My ambition made me overly serious, too. If I couldn’t enjoy being relaxed and just hanging out, that was my problem. Seeing people lounging around at the pool — something that drove me batshit crazy, and I’m not kidding — shouldn’t even have registered as mildly troubling. I should have been able to join them. Instead, I turned down most invitations to things that involved people just having fun. I went stayed home and worked harder. In itself, that would have been fine, too, but I know that I didn’t stay home simply out of ambitiousness and natural solitude. I was too consumed with judgement toward the people having fun.

It’s a crucial distinction: it’s one thing to think what you’re doing is the most important thing in the world; it’s another to think that everyone else should think so, too. I was, and sometimes still am, a creature of the second type.

And someone really would have done me a big favor by confronting me about this attitude. I can barely look back on my teenage years without being shocked at the amount of self-enforced isolation I went through in an effort to find myself. If someone had been able and willing to ignore my eloquent, and often funny, self-justifications, and made me understand that my attitude was helpful to nobody, I know I would have been indignant. But it might have made a great difference.

If the people around me had actively called me out on my hostility toward having fun in social groups, instead of just politely ignoring my grumpiness, I’d have found a way to get over the insult eventually. Instead, I looked down on them as aimless, slacking fools. We were fifteen.

More to come.


  1. I have, too, been guilty of both these things. And now I’m feeling guilty about it. At least I have started to get over the supercilious ambition thing; doing something really, really hard and really, really boring like a PhD has ground it in to me that sometimes, relaxing is just good in and of itself. But I still can’t understand people who are happy to just exist.

    1. If it helps, I can say that in the months since writing this post, I have been able to “just exist’ more easily. Meditation helps.

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