In Praise of Guilt
I’m thinking about guilt as I haul my recycle bin to the street after the holidays. It is laden with solicitations from organizations—most in support of very worthy causes—to which I have not responded.
I’ve heard it said that guilt is a useless emotion, but I don’t think that’s so. Guilt is the rumble strip that warns me that I’ve drifted from the intended path. There’s really nothing to keep me from crossing over the line—guilt is just a head’s up. Yet guilt isn’t a trivial emotion; careers have been dictated, lives have been ended because of it. Don’t tell me that such a powerful emotion doesn’t have a role in our lives. The problem with guilt arises when the template that I’m working from is somehow defective. Because guilt can’t tell me if the picture is wrong, only whether I’m coloring outside the lines.
Guilt isn’t useless if I learn something from it. If I hurt someone and feel bad about it and that reduces the probability that I engage in that behavior again, that’s constructive. Guilt also isn’t useless if it stimulates a periodic evaluation of the ethical template against which I compare my behavior. Just as guilt serves as a self-correcting process that keeps me on course, it can serve as the impetus to question whether or not the course is correct. Guilt combined with reflection creates a capacity to change perspectives is nothing less than the raw material of societal restructuring. Such emotions take me out of my comfort zone, but also inspire me to fight for the rights of groups to which I, myself, do not belong. At the opposite extreme, consider the ramifications of a person who feels no guilt feelings whatsoever. Guilt is not the only emotion at play, of course, but guilt is often the first indication, the warning light on the dashboard, signaling all is not well.
It is imperative to keep in mind that guilt does not imply judgement. Guilt that assumes the worst—or assumes anything—is not productive. And sometimes, I have to accept the action that led to the guilt, because I didn’t have a choice, because the tradeoff was worthwhile, or because I just plain made a bad decision.
Much of guilt is unproductive, sometimes tragically so. But guilt is adaptive and like it or not, it’s probably here to stay. So here are my guidelines for making the most of guilt feelings. First, in the words of Douglas Adams, don’t panic. Nothing may be wrong and no corrective action may be necessary. Second, don’t run from it. Take an honest look and ask yourself if you’ve strayed from your vision or if maybe your vision needs a little re-tooling. Third, don’t dwell on it. If you can change something, do it. If you can’t change it or you don’t need to, let it go but learn from it. Depending on the magnitude of the issue you’re dealing with, this could take awhile. But I believe that guilt is meant to be a transient emotion.
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