The futility of guilt


A Mexican lady showing me her jewellery in Mazunte.

Whilst perching uncomfortably at a bar in Mazunte, awaiting for the band to start, and resting uncomfortable in the fact that I knew nobody, I decided to jot down some ideas for possible things I could write about. In the back of my little black leather notebook is written the following, as an adage to my first far more metaphysical and rather intellectually taxing list:

  • Guilt, and the futility of – Mexican maids, street kids, beach vendors, etc.
  • The ubiquity of Hip-Hop.
  • Conundrums of travelling alone – burnt back, hanging out in bars such as this one.
  • Hypocrisy in the 21st century hippie culture – dreadlocked man and our chat post his slow, inarticulate description of water massage therapy.

I am a lady of lists, and love to traverse through them, scrawling a confident line through my set tasks once completed, and so, it is to the top of this list that this entry is dedicated to.

In fact, I attempted to commence this entry last week, but whilst on my way to finding a place to write, I found myself being waltzed around Oaxaca City’s zocalo by a boy who was at least half my age. Having never danced to Mexican banda music, I indulged in a series of neck-twisting glances at my fellow dancers, and imitated them to the best of my ability whilst laughing contentedly at the randomness of life. Rest assured, many others were also laughing and smiling in my direction, at the white girl whose rhythm was more hip hop or reggae than banda! After a rich, cold chocolate drink in a café with one of those men who was assessing my skills (or at least so I assumed however it later transpired to be a naive interpretation of his gaze), I spent the rest of the evening in a tiny bar dancing with various smooth yet lonely Casanovas to another genre of which I have no experience of: salsa! So, days later, as well as a hangover or two and a distance of several hundred kilometres now between me and the parping brass instruments and Mezcal-filled air, I will now tackle my list and give a brief adumbration of my feelings towards guilt, and it’s futility.


The zocalo in Oaxaca City.

The inspiration for such a depressingly entitled post has come from years of travelling in countries in which the salience of the chasm between the rich and the poor (in the material sense) spills out onto the streets and juts into your daily life on a regular basis. The streets of Delhi or the train tracks in Bangkok spring to mind. And you are never far from a beggar or homeless person on the streets of London either, it’s just poverty is much more behind hidden, sometimes damp walls in England, so the physical manifestation that prompts me to indulge in sensations of guilt are much harder to see. And Mexico is no stranger to poverty either. According to the World Bank, in 2010 51.3% of the Mexican population was living below the poverty line, despite being the seventh most bio-diverse country in the world thus with enough resources to satisfy everyone’s needs.

Mazunte is a tiny village on the Pacific Coast in the southern state of Oaxaca. Tourism is absolutely central to the area’s economy, and my indulgence in the deep bays and dangerous waves was during an ebb in the flow of foreigners. There were points when I was the only person slowly burning in a pool of sweat on the beach. During the day, around fifteen different people, mostly Mexican although some Italians too, would approach me with either piles of clothes for sale draped over their shoulders; arms full of beaded necklaces, pearls or braided friendship bracelets; or baskets on top of their heads or slung over their arms containing bags of fresh fruit, tamales, or Italian homemade pizza. For the first few days, I was astounded at the frequency of which I was approached and asked whether I wanted to buy their wares, despite having politely declined with a “no, gracias, necesito nada” almost every single time.


Large waves crash on one of my favourite beaches in the world:Mazunte.

Here’s a little run down of the thought process that would go through my head:

Are they coming over? Yes they are. Damn. Why do you feel so awful about this? It’s because it is boiling hot, some of them are wearing shirts and smart trousers and are covered in goods that hardly a soul is buying. They must be so uncomfortable, and ridiculously hot. Ok, so now I feel guilty. Here they come… Nod and smile with a forgiving face, express your sadness that you don’t need anything and so won’t be buying anything. Feel guilty. They walk off. 

I watch them approach others. They too say no. Some feign an interest, only then to say no. Hopes are lifted and then dashed. Then, later, they approach again, with the same cheesecloth trousers that I said no to earlier. Now, how do I feel? I said no. They must remember that as there’s hardly a soul here. But what if they haven’t sold a thing all day? What about their kids, and partners? Is it my fault they are poor?

And so, as attention spans are short and I fear I may be boring you, I will conclude part one of my thoughts on the futility of guilt. It is not my fault that some people are poor and walk up and down the beach trying to sell things that I do not want to buy. Yes, I am white, come from a formerly economically powerful country, and in comparison am in their eyes part of the dreaded 1%, but I did not create the divide between the haves and the have nots in Mexico. I could buy some beads or pearls, but I had no need for any more material possessions to crush into my small backpack.

Rather than indulging in the futility of guilt, I will continue to talk to people, listen to their tales, ask them to speak slowly as my Spanish is still rudimentary at best, and allow for the fact that as an individual, as Layla Auer, I am not responsible alone for people’s poverty. I am part of the problem, for sure, and there is a great deal I can do to contribute to a more just world, but I am not the problem!


Young surfers catching the waves on the beach in Mazunte.


6 thoughts on “The futility of guilt

  1. Like the photos, excellent! This subject is very relevant on a personal level; I too have suffered from feelings of guilt for what seems like all my life. Living in Brasil, I am confronted daily with the reality of people’s lives around me. I was complaining about my job this morning to my husband in the car, and as I was finishing up on my rant we drove past an elderly woman, doubled over, rummaging through rubbish. That is a common sight here, people go through others’ bins to find plastic and metal to take to the recycling plant, where they will get about 50 cents, or 15p, for each item. Reality check. And did I feel guilty? Yes.


    • It’s a tricky one really isn’t it, as we are very privileged and also very aware of others and the complexity of experiences and varying socio-economic backgrounds that surround us. I think I am slowly coming to terms with, and trying to not feel guilty about this awareness, that it is futile to feel guilty. In fact, it is actually self-indulgent too, as is pity. It is just difficult when you see people struggling so hard to simply feed themselves and their families, and that we really want for nothing, at least in the material sense. I suppose a lot of my thoughts for the last few years have been what can I do about this situation of injustice? What role do I play in enabling or perpetuating it? And is it possible, given power relations, greed and a litany of other factors, for there not to be at least some poverty? Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts Lucy.


  2. It is interesting that you are addressing your feelings on this subject. It feels like there will be a part 2 to this post.
    I’m looking forward to it! And I love the photos, more please!


    • I think you know me almost as well as I know myself, so I am glad you are interested in me discussing guilt! It is something I have been battling for a very long time, especially as someone who is interested in justice, whatever that means. I’d be interested to hear your views on guilt. Sometimes we do things that are really wrong, and some level of self-acknowledgement and reflection is necessary, but does that equate to feelings of guilt?


  3. My father always says that feeling guilty is a waste of time, my mother, who was divorced from my father, always said: “that is just as well, or he wouldn’t sleep at night!” To what degree is my dad’s outlook a bit simplistic and convenient? Or is it fair enough, given that you cannot change the past? I’m inclined to agree with the outlook you’ve expressed here…


    • I suppose to some extent you father was right about guilt being a waste of time, but as I said in response to Sylvia’s comment, some reflection and acknowledgement after doing something that is hurtful or dishonest that negatively impacts on someone else’s happiness is essential. But is that the same as feeling guilty?


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