Guilt is an interesting thing that caught my attention this week, making me think about its origins. To those who have walked away from traditional religious doctrines, guilt has a bad reputation. From that point of view it is something that imprisons us, having been used as a tool to control our minds. However there is also another aspect of guilt, that of our conscience talking to us. From that perspective it is a compass that tells us where we have deviated from the path that would take us to our desired destination. According to some psychological perspectives, moderate feelings of guilt are necessary but excessive guilt causes problems for mental health. The question is where to draw the line between moderate and excessive. Seeing that traditional paradigms of psychology want everyone to be as close to normal as possible I think I’ll discard that point of view. Being normal can easily translate to being mediocre and when I look around me I’m not sure I want to be normal anyway.
Having had my own struggles with guilt or the lack of it, especially in the cultural context that I live in, I now think that a lot of it is based on misunderstanding of what is good for the self and others. I have often felt conflicted by the fact that those who seemed to be most likely to impose guilt on others were least likely to take ownership for their own actions. I assumed that the world was fair and right because I was told that it was. So often I questioned my own faculty to reason in a world where my views seemed upside down. One example is the fact that it looked to me like women were expected to put others before themselves more often than men. I never understood it having been under the impression that the religious teachings introduced to me applied to everyone. Another example was the fact that it was unlawful for normal citizens to kill another person but the same rules didn’t apply when the state waged war. What was more interesting was the fact that everyone seemed to be OK with it.
One thing I can say with reasonable confidence is that those who should feel guilty are least likely to do so. Looking at it that way, guilt is perhaps an indication of higher awareness of the impact of one’s actions on others. But is lack of guilt when it would perhaps have been useful an indication that someone is a bad person? I’m not convinced – it is more likely an indication that they’re stupid or ill. I don’t think that guilt imposed from the outside would help someone take ownership for their actions anyway. People can change their ways only when they wake up and that will happen when they choose to do so.
Guilt that is actually felt is a different matter. If people are tortured by feelings of guilt for certain actions, why do they do it? Religion would tell us that we were born in sin and are slaves to the desires of the flesh if our faith isn’t strong enough. But I think guilt and freedom are opponents that sit on different sides of the same table. It is choice and understanding that will open the door to a new way of being. Conflicting desires is part of our nature and the tension is often what keeps us moving forward. Bringing to light the different aspects of ourselves gives us greater power to create our reality since it’s often the parts that we deny or suppress that run the show.
As far as our relationship with society is concerned, guilt has an interesting relationship with happiness. I can’t decide whether we are expected to be happy or not. I had a conversation with a friend this week who told me about the negative reactions of others to his inclination to pursue his dreams. I could relate to his experience since I have also felt on numerous occasions that people would argue with me when I made it clear that I would do things my way regardless of whether or not it would maintain the status quo. My friend said that he gets the feeling that some family members see him as irresponsible for chasing his dreams. When I thought about it, I realised that those who willingly took on a certain role prescribed by society that perhaps didn’t fit them so well were most likely to try to persuade me that my choices made no sense.
On the other hand, I have also felt guilty many times because I was unhappy. This meant either that I wasn’t grateful for what I had or I was flawed because of my inability to make myself happy. In this instance guilt had two connotations, either one of selfishness or one of failure. I can only come to the conclusion that when guilt is imposed from the outside, it is because others expect us to be happy in a certain way. If we’re true to ourselves we might threaten the status quo and make others uncomfortable. In the spirit of Carl Rogers, this implies a fundamental distrust of the organismic valuing process.
When guilt is an obstacle in the way of our freedom, we need to go about carefully in order to free ourselves. Discarding old notions of right and wrong in favour of doing whatever we want to might not give us the freedom we want because we still have to take the consequences of our actions. However I’m tempted to believe that aligning with our soul purpose would help us move to a new understanding of what is good for ourselves and for the whole. Without advocating complete inconsideration for others, I think that often those who hurt or harm us are doing us a favour. In the end life asks us to live authentically and find happiness. If that is the path we choose we will help others to do the same for themselves, regardless of whether everyone will always feel comfortable with our actions or not.