The dilemma around guilt is that even though nobody wants to feel guilty, we all do anyway, no matter what we say about it, what we preach, how we deny it or try to ignore it. I’ve noticed that when someone says they feel guilty, all kinds of advice about the absurdity of feeling that way immediately arises, and there’s no lack of right words and phrases to convince the person that they have no reason to feel guilty. Undoubtedly we do all this to convince ourselves that guilt is something harmful and negative, something that should not figure greatly in our lives.
I strongly agree, but that does not mean the feeling of guilt diminishes. Despite all the enormously wise advice and, in the worst of cases, the most agonizing confessions, the problem stubbornly persists. In less than five minutes, there we are again, feeling guilty in spite of everything that’s been explained to us
Since no one likes this theme of guilt, we’re always hearing how outdated our guilts are, how they surely belong to another time in people’s lives; but secretly, those statements are made with little conviction.
Many years ago, when I was complaining to a woman I was married to about how guilty I felt (over something unimportant to anyone else), she told me that if I felt guilty, it was because I WAS guilty. When she told me that, I was stunned, because it was not what I expected, and on top of that, it bore the heavy charge of accusation. Very angry, I told her how could she say things like that, and she, without blinking an eye, replied that indeed I WAS guilty because otherwise I would feel differently. In other words, if I didn’t feel guilty, I wasn’t guilty.
That was a revelation for me, and made me realize two big things about feeling guilty. One, which has to do with the human mental form – so to speak, since guilt is part of the society and culture in which we are immersed, and whether we like it or not, it exists as part of the greater field in which we are all interconnected. It is useless to try to “blame” religions for these feelings, because even though for centuries religious institutions have used guilt to their own advantage, guilt is not an inherent part of any spiritual system, and those who have been born and raised in secular environments, even though they know nothing of religion, feel no less guilty because of that.
The other thing is that guilt is closely linked to “what should be”, that is, to what is ethical, which is also a cultural and social attribute. We were born and raised under the influence of this idea, and precisely because it is so “all-enveloping” it is not easy to eradicate or fully understand. We tend only to know that we don’t like it.
The constant search for the “guilty party,” when something does not fit what is predictable and acceptable in our societies, does not help much either. Even less do we get any help from the judicial system, on which we have commented in previous reflections.
To admit that I was “guilty” based on my feelings of guilt was as unpleasant a novelty as the feeling of guilt itself. For a long time I couldn’t understand it, but obviously there was a truth there that I could not avoid. Little by little I began to realize that indeed one “is” or “is not” guilty, and not only guilty, but also any other attribute of that type. You are “generous” or you are not; funny, thoughtful, happy, sensible, sad, bitter, etc. etc.
I know that nobody likes the idea of negative attributes; we all want to be “positive,” and in Spanish, to take the sting out, we use the verb “estar” – the temporary meaning of “to be,” instead of “ser,” the form of “to be” that expresses an ongoing state. When we are depressed, sad, angry, furious, etc., etc. we use “estar,” and this makes our existence more flexible. Emotions are fleeting, they are states of mind that come and go. So we keep adjusting our “to be” or “not to be,” varying the shape of our expression with the help both of language and of the fleetingness and instability of the emotions.
All this is more or less acceptable, but with guilt it’s more than just “being guilty” temporarily. Guilt is without doubt a feeling that we carry throughout our lifetime, and therefore I do not think it is something that we can easily shake off. We can, however, observe this feeling, and without condemning it, suppressing it, justifying it or denying it, we can decide if we want to “be guilty” or not.
My examples are not very elegant, but here’s one: I promise to do something with someone, but then I get lazy, or I forget, or something else comes up and I don’t do it. I telephone the person and justify myself for not showing up (because I couldn’t bear the guilt). Another example: I make a commitment to someone to do something and despite not wanting to do it for whatever reason, I tell myself it’s better to do it than to feel guilty. I do it, and I don’t feel guilty. I also could have not committed to doing anything with anyone, and then I probably wouldn’t have felt guilty at all either.
With these examples I can see how guilt is armed in me and how I can also disarm it. But what I decide internally is important, and has to do with my image of myself in the world, how the world sees me, how I present myself to the world and how much I value all that. It has a lot to do with the “what should be” mentioned above.
How do I get out of this strange conditioning?
I am not quite sure, but I am clear that it is a kind of conditioning, and that it is incoherent. And the more I observe and the more I generate the correct attitude that gives me the fewest internal contradictions, the more I move forward with this issue of guilt.
For me the important thing has been to reflect on the following: “When you harm others, you remain enchained. But, if you do not harm anyone, you can freely do whatever you want.” Because for me this principle has opened a way out of that conditioning. Especially when I understand that although my freedom of action is freedom within conditions, it has the unmistakable flavor of coherence when it is measured in relation to my neighbor or to those around me.
This principle has had an effect opposite that of the one I mentioned about feeling guilty and being guilty. The simple idea that you can do what you want if you do not harm others is simply revolutionary. Of course each of us has to see that harming others can happen either through acting directly or through failing to act. But in any case, the important thing is that the other person is the important consideration, and not how I am affected. When I can displace (even a little) the “I” from the equation, and consider others, then “what I have to do or should do” is clearer, and that clarity is what illuminates the guilt-free action.
All this is a great experiment that I can do and keep in mind in my daily action in the world. I have very lucid moments and others that are more confusing, but simple observation helps a lot to define a unitive behavior where guilt is nothing more than an incentive to discover a new way of being in the world. It is almost redundant to say it, but the problem of guilt is that it is an internal element that brings disintegration, and for that reason it is appropriate to reconcile with it regardless of one’s reasons for being or feeling guilty.
Portland, February 26, 2021