I Believe in Guilt

Sara - Brevard, North Carolina
Entered on March 10, 2009
Age Group: 65+

The man was a horse’s ass. By the time he walked, leaving me to raise our daughter, I didn’t respect him, I didnt trust him and I didn’t love him. People always say that when a marriage ends in divorce, both parties bear responsibility for its failure. People are wrong. The responsibility was not mine; the blame rested squarely, and only, with him.

I drew up an inventory of all his transgressions, beginning with his insistence that we warehouse our daughter–send her to an institution–because he didn’t want to deal with her difficult behaviors. He told me I’d never be able to rear her successfully. Deep down, I knew that he was right, that my daughter didn’t want what I had to offer, that I didn’t know how to help her, and that her life was headed towards disaster. Nevertheless, I would stand by her, and she would at least know that she’d been loved, and that someone cared, and tried, and didn’t give up; maybe that knowledge might help her a little. And, if not, it was still the right thing to do. But he could think only about what was best for himself. Self-centered bastard! My stack of papers grew as day after day I set down more of his transgressions.

When Yom Kippur arrived that year, I took my bundle of papers and a book of matches, and climbed to the top of a mountain where I spent the entire day burning page after page of my grievances and watching the ashes as they floated away on the breeze. Late in the afternoon, I descended the mountain, congratulating myself for having accomplished something. The imagery of my ceremony was sublime, but my ritual had been hollow, and when at last my self-congratulations ebbed, I understood that God hadn’t accepted my burnt offering. The man remained a horse’s ass.

Years passed and things changed. I spent eleven days in the presence of the Dalai Lama, learning, gaining wisdom, and transforming my life. And my former husband, who had been right about my inability to raise our daughter, became my ally when I decided I had to terminate her parental rights.

Yom Kippur came ’round again, and once again I ascended to my temple on the top of the mountain. I had grown away from my anger over the failed marriage, but on this day I would return to it one last time–this time to put it to rest. I remained unwilling to assume a portion of the blame, but here’s the epiphany: I was ready to accept ALL of the blame. I now understood that my choice was either to be guilty or to be a victim. It was a no-brainer. I opted for guilt over helplessness.

In Buddhism, there’s a practice called tonglen in which the practitioner breathes in the pain and suffering of others. It sounds like a gruesome exercise, but it turns out that we suffer most from our efforts to avoid suffering. When suffering’s embraced, it’s somehow transformed, and it flows right through the practitioner who experiences, not agony, but liberation.

And so it is with guilt. I spent that Yom Kippur shifting my perspective. I didn’t try to change the facts–only the meaning I gave to the facts. Sure, he had behaved in ways that were cruel and inappropriate. But face it: Who’s GOING to be at his best when he’s disrespected, mistrusted and unloved? I assumed the guilt–every last shred of it. You’d think that by doing this, I’d become, well, a horse’s ass, but I don’t think that’s what happened. If someone else had ascribed all, or even a fragment, of the guilt to me, I would have suffered, and resisted the guilt, and fought for my good name. But taking guilt on voluntarily is a whole different experience. I felt strong, liberated from anger, and, paradoxically, I felt no guilt.

Let me put this experience in Christian terms. In Luke 14, there’s a parable in which Jesus instructs a person invited to a banquet to refrain from taking the seat of honor, lest the host tell that guest that the seat of honor had been intended for someone else; were that to happen, the presumptuous person would have to move in disgrace. So the guest should take the lowest seat, and then perhaps the host might invite that guest to move to a more elevated place.

What Jesus was doing in this parable was nothing short of giving us a holy secret: We are entitled to nothing. Everything–our lives, our world–is gift. When we feel entitled, we’re always disappointed, because we never can get enough recognition or whatever it is we feel entitled to; but when we understand that everything is gift, we live in gratitude, and we become rich.

By insisting on my pristine holier-than-he innocence in the aftermath of my divorce, I was, in effect, assigning myself the seat of honor. Nobody asked me to move in so many words, and yet, when I went to the mountaintop with an inventory of my spouse’e transgressions on Yom Kippur, God rejected my burnt offering. Well, of course. Wrapped in my self-righteousness, I had approached God with a sense of entitlement, and I was closed to grace. But when I took on all of the guilt, I was taking the most humble seat, and from there I was–finally–open to receiving gifts. God smiled. And that, my friends, is why I believe in guilt.