“I have never smuggled anything in my life,” the great novelist John Steinbeck wrote in Travels With Charley. “Why, then, do I feel an uneasy sense of guilt on approaching a customs barrier?” Steinbeck’s guilt was irrational because, as he said, he had nothing to hide. So where did his guilt come from?
On approaching a customs barrier, he was aware, of course, that he was going to be dealing with an official vested with government authority. Steinbeck was likely being triggered by emotional impressions that the custom agent was going to view him as a potential smuggler or criminal. The agent had the power to hold him accountable. It appears that Steinbeck was entertaining the prospect of being confronted by a gruff agent who was prepared to intimidate him.
Of course, Steinbeck had a great imagination, and it was easy for him to imagine being a smuggler. To write so convincingly, he had to be able to bring to life the emotional experiences of his fictional characters. Yet most people have a talent for imagining doing bad things and also for imagining bad things happening to them. Feelings of being wrong, bad, and helpless are common to human nature. That stems, in part, from a lingering emotional resonance in our psyche with feelings of being naughty and being helpless. We can remember times as children when we faced the prospect of a scolding or punishment, whether we’d done wrong or not.
As Steinbeck approached a border crossing, he would have started resonating emotionally with the prospect of being exposed as a lawbreaker. At this point, guilt would be aroused in him because he was identifying emotionally with the plight of someone being caught, exposed, and taken into custody. He was experiencing guilt because he was starting to replay familiar passive feelings that are negative in nature. In his mind, the custom agent would soon be looming over him with dark, suspicious eyes. Steinbeck’s guilt was directly associated with his unconscious willingness in that moment to experience himself as a passive creature at the mercy of an authority figure. [Read more…]