Is guilt useful or an unhealthy hangover from medieval Christianity?


Is guilt useful or an unhealthy hangover from medieval Christianity?  I’ve been thinking about this and would like to present a new 80/20 view of guilt.  One problem is that the wrong people feel guilty.  Less than one percent of the people reading this blog are likely to be psychopaths, they feel zero percent of collective guilt, and they should feel 99 percent of it.  But leave them aside; nothing I can say can help them.

What about the rest of us?  First, there is no doubt that excessive feelings of guilt, on a daily basis, are nearly always unhelpful to anyone – to us or the people around us.  When I was growing up, I felt guilty about “impure thoughts”, and then guilty about sex of any kind.  It took me a long time to realize that this was natural and to get over any guilt.  I hope that doesn’t apply to anyone today.  But a lot of people today are in thrall to the idea that there is something profoundly wrong with us, that we are, as the Prayer Book gloatingly tell us, “miserable sinners”.  Hundreds of millions of people in the world still go to confession every day, and have to dredge up a few sins to keep the priest happy.  And, among people who don’t think of themselves as religious, there is still a lot of residual guilt around.  Guilt that we didn’t stay to finish the last piece of work, even though it was eight in the evening.  Guilt that our project is not going well.  Guilt that we didn’t say hello to the new recruit yesterday.  Guilt that we haven’t answered the 101th email today.  Even, occasionally, guilt that is really quite deserved – the guilt that we snapped at our partner, guilt that we failed to return a gesture of reconciliation, guilt that we failed to love.

What should be clear is that 80 percent of the guilt we feel – at the very least, perhaps 99 percent – is guilt that is not functional.  It has negative value.  The fact is that we are the “crooked timber of humanity”, and we had better accept the fact.  If we are to achieve anything worthwhile in life, we have to love ourselves, because if we don’t love ourselves, we can’t love anyone else; and if we don’t love our work, and think that on the whole we are good at it, we won’t achieve anywhere near what we could.  We are not perfect but that is not our fault.  It is the way we are made – made by … Choose what you believe – God, our genes, our environment, our friends, our workplace, and by unwise decisions we made in the past and bad habits we have developed.  Okay, so some of it may have been our fault, but to blame the “me” of today for what the “me” did ten years ago is neither reasonable nor helpful.  We don’t have a time machine.

So 80 or 99 of guilt is something that has negative value – it may sometimes be intellectually correct – we have done something wrong that it would be good not to repeat – but to beat ourselves up over it is not going to help.  And a lot of the guilt – especially guilt about failure or lack of perfect performance at work – is not even reasonable.  Because if we judge by results, it is possible – in fact I would say it is typical for the type of person reading this blog – to work too hard, to strive too hard, to persevere at something for which, in truth, we are not cut out.  That “something” stops us finding what we really are cut out for – the contribution we could make to the world and our own sense of fulfilment.  So the guilt is not only unreasonable, but utterly wrong-headed.  The less ambitious sort of person, the type who takes an instrumental view of work as being what has to be done to earn a living, does not suffer the guilt, and is happier as a result.  What is wrong is not the ambition – that is a good thing, because only ambition can make us fully alive and useful to the universe – but the guilt that lack of success often brings.   The lack of success is feedback and should be valued as such, but the right reaction is not guilt – but to do something different, or differently!  Something that takes less effort, and gives a better result, because we like doing it and are better at it.

A small percentage of the time, the guilt should be listened to, because it can point us in a better direction.  As M. Scott Peck says in Further Along The Road Less Traveled:

We need these moments of breaking, when we come to realize that we are not okay, that we do not have it all together, that we are not perfect, that we are not without sin.  Moments of guilt, moments of contrition, moments when we are lacking in self-esteem, moments when we are bearing the trial of being displeasing to ourselves, are essential to our growth.

But even during these moments, we also need to value and love ourselves.  Not only is it possible to love ourselves and realize that we are imperfect, but it’s possible to do this at the same time.  Indeed, often part of our loving ourselves is the realization that there is something about us that we need to work on.

And that last point is bang on.  The Principle says that we should worry about outputs, not inputs; results, not causes.  What matters is that we improve our performance.  There is the hard way to do this, and the easy way.  The hard way is to allow our lives to be structured by other people and not to change our environment to suit our strengths.   The easy way is to take charge and do the opposite.  Given that we are “crooked timber”, the only sensible thing to do is to go the easy way.  It is easier to change our surroundings – to ones where we can shine and be happy – that it is to change our insides.  So we need to be clever and cunning about it.  We need to plot.  We need to experiment.  We need to find ourselves, find the job, the partner, the friends, the contacts, the work, all these things that will be good for us and enable us to do something we enjoy, and something that therefore can be amazingly helpful to other people, because it works for us.  If we enjoy our work and our relationships, we will add more value and happiness to the world than if we don’t.

So – most guilt should be shrugged off – not denied, not ignored, but listened to and then put aside.  But some of it may change our lives.  The trick is knowing which is the one percent of guilt that we should really heed.   The answer is – guilt is only useful if it points us in a happier direction.   And that is something I haven’t found in the Prayer Book yet.

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