This I Believe

O'Brien - Heidelberg, Germany
Entered on July 17, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: integrity

I believe there is no emotion so utterly unnecessary as guilt. Most people, however, would find this statement absurd. Just look, they would argue, at the guilt-ridden faces of shoppers who know their accounts are overdrawn, at the obese who know they should not finish off that last piece of pie or at the moralist surfing for Internet porn when he knows that it corrupts. These are very good points. Nevertheless, guilt is a useless emotion.

The need for guilt exists because people happily do exactly what they wish while avoiding responsibility for their actions. They want pizza without calories, sex without betrayal, war without victims. Guilt’s presence is concomitant with our urge to be irresponsible.

Since homo sapiens first lifted their eyes to the flaming sun, there has been excess and debauchery, treachery and murder. Gods, saints and priests as well as kings, parliamentarians and teachers have made the rules which people have always gleefully disregarded—feeling guilty all the way but undeterred by society’s frowns, prison’s solitude or hell’s flames. Energetically, we continue to do evil; there is no sign of abatement.

We live in a world of pain. We enter it screaming, after a wicked whack on our bottoms; screaming or whimpering, we leave it. Why should guilt accompany us on this long arching journey from womb to tomb? What service does it provide?

The only possible purpose of this delusive emotion should be its corrective, reflective or, ideally, preventative potential. And yet all societies across the globe are busily engaged in guilt-producing deeds. And if these guilty actions are repeated—which they virtually always are—then the reason for experiencing guilt vanishes.

Guilt is as beguiling as it is harmful, a cosy, clammy blanket smothering our consciences. It produces no significant change in behaviour or character, heals no wounds, fills no internal voids, provides no insight, rights no wrongs. It always arrives after the fact, preventing nothing.

A product of the mind or the soul, the heart or the stomach, it matters little if guilt takes the form of that extra scoop of double fudge ice cream or that empty bottle of Scotch: consumed by the feeling that you “really shouldn’t have” or— what is far worse—“I don’t deserve this,” guilt kills the few joys in our lives, replacing beauty with the dark suspicion that we have broken some written or unwritten code.

This I believe: because guilt is almost always connected with pleasure-giving acts, it is perverse. Unable to alter human behaviour, it is ineffectual. Reproduced a thousand times over, it is irrelevant. Only by embracing our humanity and by living in full consciousness of the decisions we make and the consequences arising from them may we live without this insidious burden. Surely we should relish those rare things which make us happy. Surely we should experience the full, rich range of our emotions. And surely we can live freer lives without the dead weight of black guilt.