DRIVERS traveling along a stretch of Route 1 in suburban Boston these days can't miss a tempting billboard. Across the bottom of the sign, four giant scoops of Brigham's ice cream -- chocolate, mint, strawberry, and mocha almond -- suggest a mouthwatering treat.
Yet any appeal those colorful flavors might have is quickly canceled out by a killjoy headline: ''What's Another 10 Minutes on the Stairmaster?''
Talk about negative sales pitches, making potential customers feel guilty before they take a single bite! How many people want to be told they must spend 10 minutes working out as punishment for a few moments of eating pleasure? Thanks, but no.
Then again, maybe that is what the public wants to hear. Doing penance for imagined excesses, culinary or otherwise, has become a national pastime.
A few hours before I spotted the billboard, a businessman I know confided that he'd strayed from his usual nutritious meals by indulging in a breakfast pastry, followed by a Dove Bar after lunch. To relieve his guilt, he said, he walked five miles.
Has eating ever produced more fear? Nothing edible seems to escape the harsh judgment of the food police, who delight in producing guilt in every eater.
Nor does needless anxiety stop at the dining table. At home, working parents, doing what they must to support their families, feel guilty about being away from their children. To compensate, some buy toys -- lots of toys. Others admit that guilt keeps them from involving their children in household chores. Still others who employ nannies and housekeepers say they find it hard to ask these employees to do certain tasks because they feel guilty about even having hired help.
Then there's the free-floating anxiety that pervades the workplace. In an earlier age, sneaking out in midafternoon would have given an employee legitimate reason to feel conscience-stricken. Now, in an age of downsizing, it's not uncommon for workers to feel guilty about taking lunch or being the first to leave at 6 p.m.
There appears to be no end to the ways upright people get uptight, sabotaging their peace of mind with self-reproach about normal activities like eating, working, and rearing children.
Guilt that stems from wrongdoing is part of being responsible and wanting to be good. Change the errant behavior and the conscience presumably clears. But the unwarranted guilt that grows out of imagined sins seems to defy such clear-cut solutions.
Like Carl Sandburg's fog, this guilt comes in on little cat feet. It pounces on the unsuspecting and claws away at happiness and well-being.
Where does this sense of never quite measuring up come from -- this fear that one is not an attractive enough person, a good enough parent or spouse, a hard enough worker?
Women's magazines, for all their intended purpose of helping readers, may be prime culprits. Headlines such as ''Think Thin,'' ''How to Raise Smarter Kids,'' and ''Perfect Party Food in 10 Minutes!'' may create more anxiety than they erase. Read this, the editors seem to shout, and you can have the body of Jane Fonda, the parenting skills of Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, the earning power of Bill Gates, and the hostessing skills of Martha Stewart, all rolled into one perfect person.
Then there are those talk shows, filled with sobbing guilt on every imaginable subject, and those self-help books, with each author's implied message of ''I'm OK, but you're not.'' Oh yes, and don't forget those ice-cream billboards.
Taking responsibility is the beginning of all morality. But maybe it's time to declare a moratorium on false responsibility -- on embracing guilt until it becomes a form of self-indulgence.
Who knows. Americans might once again find guilt-free pleasure in something as simple as savoring a chocolate ice-cream cone on a warm spring day, with nary a thought of having to pump iron afterwards.