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Guilt – To act or not to act on it?
A couple had fallen in love and got married. They were sublimely happy. But tragically within weeks of the wedding, the woman was given a diagnosis of cancer and soon found herself needing a mastectomy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. She became bald due to hair loss, developed mouth sores and painful bowel movements and had to face the devastating likelihood of an early death with no chance of having a child.
The Experience of the Husband
In order to be with his wife through her ordeal, her husband, who was a writer of world renown in his field — his name is Ken Wilber — chose to stop writing and generally turned his life over to her fight against cancer. This was an emotionally draining responsibility. He assumed he could not voice his own needs because of her suffering. Not surprisingly she came to take his support for granted.
In the middle of this, he himself went down with a medium-term debilitating illness of unknown origin. Due to exhaustion he even stopped his daily meditation – a spiritual practice that had previously given him huge benefit. For over a year he completely submerged his own interests, his own work, his own life. Up to that period, writing had been his life-blood. He defined himself by his writing and when that suddenly stopped he was suspended in mid-air, so to speak. In other words, his mistaken conscience was dictating altruistic but psychologically unhealthy behaviour that could not last indefinitely.
He was to say that he would have done all this again unhesitatingly under the same circumstances but would have done it differently with more of a support system for himself in place. The grinding role of a full-time carer takes a devastating toll unless this is available.
Guilt of Looking of Looking After Oneself
Some of us need to remember that looking after oneself does not necessarily make us selfish. If we do not look after ourselves how can we expect to look after anyone else? We can start to feel a little less uptight about our behaviour when we see the unreasonableness of some of our guilt-laden habits of thought and learn how to face up to them.
The need for one to find a balance between one’s own needs and the needs of one’s family or one’s work is quite a challenge these days with so many pressures to withstand – let alone the extra pressure of being a full-time carer. It is a mistaken conscience that gets us to perform our useful caring roles without setting aside any time for ourselves – for our recreation and other personal needs.
Another example of a mistaken conscience is when people find themselves on a guilt trip. Even if we have a sound mind, we may sometimes feel guilty over the smallest thing – without rhyme or reason painstakingly worried about something we have done that really is unimportant. For example saying `sorry’ a lot of the time over trivia and being unfair on ourselves.
Many hopelessly sick people feel constantly guilty. This may result from the suspicion that their sickness and fate are self-inflicted and their own fault. Some are always apologizing for the trouble and fuss they are causing. Western culture fosters a sense of guilt when illness places people in the dependent role.
Does feeling frequently guilt-ridden come about from wanting to be well thought of and desiring popularity? Some of us since childhood even have a sense of badness and secretly assume we might deserve punishment..
Accepting oneself for what one is – warts and all – means being less concerned about how we are looked upon by those who know us. If we can learn to notice our strengths as well as our failings, we will feel less bad about our mistakes.
Is all guilt mistaken?
Counselling psychologists tend to see guilt as a personal problem whereas religious people say it is useful for it can lead to repentance. But this disagreement vanishes when we distinguish between mistaken guilt and realistic guilt. Sometimes we act against a heartfelt and deep awareness of what we feel to be right – against a true conscience. We rightly feel bad about it even if sometimes we act in error on impulse without thinking.
“Anger, intoxication, obstinacy, bigotry, deceit, envy, grandiloquence, pride and conceit, intimacy with the unjust, this is what defiles one.” (Sutta-Nipata, ii, 2,7. – Buddhist tradition)
Sooner or later we all do foolish things. The existential psychotherapists have pointed out that one cannot reason away those guilt feelings which come from an awareness of actual transgressions against true conscience and unfulfilled potentials.
How to reduce guilt
If we wish to rid ourselves of guilt then we should try to disentangle feelings of guilt arising because of a true and mistaken conscience. This means noticing the avoidable bad things that we have done and no longer relying on such comfortable alibis as `I didn’t mean it’, or `I followed an irresistible impulse.’ Guilt arising from a true conscience is helpful if it can lead to a change of behaviour. It is easier to feel a sense of being forgiven when we change our actions for the better.
At the same time we can distinguish between urges and actions. Some of us tend to feel guilty believing all the bad things we think come from ourselves. Yet, only extremely vain conceited individuals make a mistake in claiming credit for every good idea they happen to have.
Surely if it is mistaken to attribute all virtuous impulses to oneself it is also an error to believe that we are responsible for all bad things we think? Can we really be blamed for all the shameful desires that pop into our hearts if we neither entertain them for long nor fall for their tempting allure? Longer version of this article
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems