Posts Tagged ‘Guilt’

The maldistribution of guilt

July 21, 2013

One of the things I decided at a young age was that although I would take moral responsibility for my actions, I would never let anybody make me feel guilty about what I am.

This was partly a reaction against my early religious upbringing.  I learned many good values in my church, such as respect for the dignity and worth of all persons and the duty to stand up for what is right when everybody else disagreed.  But I also took away a belief that guilt holds positive value.

At age 13 and 14, I believed, because I failed to love other people as myself and failed to love God with all by heart, soul and mind, I was a sinner and that it was because of sinners such as me that Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross.  I noticed that in the Gospels Jesus was forgiving of repentant sinners, but condemned people who took satisfaction in following religious rules.   I concluded that the best thing I could hope to be is a repentant sinner, but repentance was of no value if I took satisfaction in being repentant.

I do not claim this is an accurate account of Christian teachings.  But it is what I believed at age 13 and 14, and I do not think I was unique in these beliefs.

guilt2Guilt has a positive function.  If you feel bad about doing bad things, and good about doing good things, you are motivated to do fewer bad things and more good things.  But if your sense of guilt is so highly developed that you feel bad about feeling good, you are trapped in a Catch-22 vicious circle.

Guilt, like many other things, is badly distributed.   Some people have much more than is good for them, but those who need it the most have none at all.

I knew a woman, a person of no explicit religious beliefs, who came as close as anybody I know to being a saint.  She spent decades of her life as a volunteer teacher in New York state prisons, ministering to society’s outcasts just as Jesus did.  From time to time she would talk about how rewarding she found her work and the relationships with the inmates.  Then she would bring herself up short.  She thought that if she found pleasure and satisfaction in her volunteer work, her reason volunteering was selfish and had no moral merit.   Neither she nor anybody else benefited from this kind of reasoning.

I am highly suspicious of anybody to tries to persuade me to do or believe something based on the guilt I supposedly should feel for being white or middle-class or American.  This approach leads me to believe that the persuader has no valid argument.

I think that white guilt—the feeling of guilt for being a member of the white race—is a subconscious version of Christian original sin.  It is based not on what you do, but what you are.

I have listened to liberal white people in workshops confessing that they are all a bunch of racists.  I think such conversations reflect the subconscious notion that feeling guilty has moral value in and of itself, regardless of whether the feeling leads to constructive action.   If you are concerned about civil rights, it should be because you want everyone’s basic rights respected, not because you are trying to get rid of negative feelings about yourself.

When guilt is good, and when it isn’t

May 6, 2012

Guilt is a signal, not a value.  Guilt can be a good thing.  Guilt can serve a purpose.  If you feel guilty about doing something, that’s a reason not to do it in the future.  If you feel proud doing something, that’s a reason to continue doing it in the future.  The problem is when guilt and price become moral values in themselves.  Guilt becomes a substitute for doing better.  Pride becomes an excuse for not doing better.

I never completely understood the parable of the Pharisee and the publican in the Gospel of Luke.   The Pharisee, as you probably recall, was a honest man, who was faithful to his wife, gave 10 percent of his income to charity and obeyed the letter and the spirit of the law.    The publican was a corrupt government official.  The publican asked for forgiveness for him, a sinner.  The Pharisee gave thanks to God that He had made him a virtuous man–unlike, for example, the publican.

Jesus condemned the Pharisee’s prayer and praised the publican’s.   I can see why He condemned the Pharisee’s prayer.  Being self-satisfied as he was, he saw no need for improvement–for example, if he was distant and unloving to his wife and children.  But it seems to me that the publican’s wallowing in guilt did not lead to improvement, either.  He asked God to forgive his sins, but he did not ask God to help him get rid of his sins–for example, by following a more honest calling.

My friends sometimes tell me I am overly hard on myself.   I don’t think I am–quite the opposite, in fact.   What they call being hard on myself is simply my attempt to face the truth about myself and express it in plain language.   (That is also what my friends call my cynical sense of humor, but that’s another story.)   Guilt is not good in itself, but guilt can lead to something good.  It is good to strive to be better than you are, and you can’t do that unless you understand the truth about what you are.   That means facing the things about yourself that you don’t want to admit.

Guilt should always be about what you do, because that opens the possibility of doing better in the future.  You should never be ashamed of what you are, and you should never define what you are in terms of your worst actions.   As Tolstoy said somewhere, there are no good people or bad people as such.  There are only people who have done relatively more good things than bad things, and vice versa.