What you did wasn’t that bad. A hasty ill-judged remark, an over-indulgence, a minor act of selfishness. You want to forget about it but the memory lingers. What if somebody else noticed? You feel uneasy with yourself. Is this the tiny prick of conscience? A sense you have done something wrong? You want to feel self-respect after doing wrong. You want to feel better about yourself but you cannot change what happened.
Joan had become preoccupied with her sense of guilt. She had badly let down her life-time friend Sally. Not gone to her best pal’s wedding. There was a good reason or so she had tried to tell herself. The conference was one she had keenly wanted to attend. But she could have put it off until the following year. She knew she should have put her life-long friend first. Sure, Sally was still speaking – after a fashion — but Joan couldn’t forgive herself. Couldn’t get her self-respect back.
We all do some wrong things but there are actions that some people take that cause immense hurt and damage. But whatever it is we have done, we need to feel self-respect, to be liked and accepted without feeling bad about ourselves. So how does one get rid of guilt?
If you are not unfairly being hard on yourself, the first step is to stop making up excuses to justify, what deep down, you know you shouldn’t have done. Be honest and own up at least to yourself. And resolve to try not to do something like it again. If you want, you can be a different person from the time when you behaved badly. The self-respect can return.
Okay there are some things that can’t be remedied that we will regret for ever. Yet you can ask yourself, is there really nothing I can do to right the wrong? Sometimes you can and then a sense of pardon might be felt from the offended person after you apologise or attempt to make amends. This happened to Joan. Not only did she confess her selfish error to Sally, she did her best to make it up to her by later throwing a surprise wedding anniversary party. And that cost her a pretty penny and some valuable time but she was really glad she could do it. She and Sally were the best of friends again.
Reconciliation can be a wonderful thing, for example following marital breakdown, but how can this be achieved following serious crime. How on earth do people live with themselves after committing murder or abusing a child? I guess if they have little conscience then they suffer little guilt. But if they do have genuine remorse then sad indeed is their torment unless they can find a way to stop condemning themselves for that one mad moment when they completely lost self-control. Self-respect for this kind of person must feel like a mile away.
Some people have experimented with psychedelic drugs and report the experience of love and forgiveness, as well as benign and blissful moments of cosmic unity whilst under the chemical influence. But these effects don’t seem to last and the ‘trip’ can also include horrible visions of filth and torture.
So where can we get lasting help for a stricken conscience? Those with strong feelings of anxiety and guilt have been drawn to the promise of religion for their redemption. But traditional Christianity talks about the “forgiveness of God for the repentant sinner” thus using a language that has unfortunate connotations of punishment and judgement.
Instead, why not think of the image of genuinely loving parents? These have nothing to forgive when looking at their children who go off the rails. Just hope and encouragement for better days ahead.
Or think of non-judgmental counsellors who adopt an accepting attitude towards their clients. This stance allows confessions of guilty secrets and the encouragement of self-insight and attitude change. The aim of therapy is self-respect and self-esteem.
Counsellors don’t need to forgive, for it is not they who have been offended but they do foster self-acceptance. Likewise the divine Counsellor, as the origin of infinite mercy and compassion, does not need to forgive. For to forgive implies condemnation which Love itself is incapable of feeling. Such an idea of God as a Counsellor can be thought of as providing healing of guilt.
Emanuel Swedenborg taught that there is a huge mistake in an interpretation of the Christian doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ that correct religious belief is sufficient for salvation. Instead he said that what is wanted in the heart and what is done by the hands, in addition to what the head thinks, is what really matters. He claimed that to feel divine acceptance, belief alone is insufficient: one also has to put into practice one’s belief and that this means changing the ways one deals with other people by following Christ’s way. Through gaining a sense of God’s respect for what we do we can find self-respect.
In other words whilst in humble supplication we can pray for God’s mercy but in so doing we need to remember our own responsibility for accepting other people. As the Lord’s prayer says:
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
As HT Hamblin put it:
“If he will love, or hold in thoughts of good-will the one who has wronged him, then his life will become happy and peaceful, and in its highest sense, successful.”
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems