Feeling good about feeling guilty

Feeling GuiltyGuilt is an explosive word. In a recent conversation with my friend and fellow theologian, Scott Stephens, I found myself agreeing with him that public conversation is impoverished if we cannot speak of guilt. But I also argued that because of two cultural barriers it is almost impossible to be heard when you speak of guilt.

The first barrier is that many people identify bearing guilt with feeling guilty. They further identify feeling guilty with beating up on yourself and having a poor self image. So to ask people to reflect on their guilt is to send them on a guilt trip whose destination is worthlessness. Unsurprisingly, they resist such travel advice.

The concept of guilt is resisted also at a deeper level. Guilt implies continuity. The great classical tragedies that centred on guilt emphasised that the older man bears the guilt of what the younger man did. The son, too, carries the guilt of his father's wrongdoing. Our identity is anchored in our history.

In contemporary western culture our sense of personal and communal continuity is less strongly marked. We regard the self and its history as more pliable. We are told that we can make ourselves over and that we can walk away from our past. Because I am substantially a different person from the one who acted badly, I am no longer responsible for what I did nor for its consequences. So it is impertinent to suggest we should acknowledge guilt.

I shall ask in a later article whether we can still speak of bearing guilt for past actions. Here I would like simply to explore whether it is appropriate to feel guilty. At one level, of course, it makes little sense whether particular feelings are appropriate or not. Feelings arise in us whether they are appropriate or not, and we need to deal with them. Still, we instinctively judge that it is natural and helpful to feel in this way, but not in that.

Feeling guilty includes many different kinds of feelings. So I shall outline those we may have after we recognise that we have acted wrongly — driven negligently and wrapped a cyclist around our bullbar, for example. Then we can ask whether these feelings are appropriate or out of place.

When we know we have done wrong we often feel remorse. We regret what we have done and its consequences. Remorse can be self-centered, concerned only with the looming court case. But it can also focus on the harm we have done to the cyclist. We may then feel sorrow for the cyclist, her husband and children.

It seems natural and appropriate to feel both remorse and sorrow. Remorse reflects our recognition that it was wrong to drive negligently and that we would not want to do it again. To feel sorrow for the injured cyclist and her family is also a natural and generous response.

After injuring the cyclist, we might also feel shame. We find it hard to face our friends, workmates and the relatives of those we have hurt. We feel we have not respected the claims that our shared humanity makes on us.

Shame is often accompanied by a feeling of responsibility. We feel the cyclist's welfare to be our business. It seems right to feel shame and responsibility. Both feelings encourage us to reflect on our relationships and to remedy the consequences of what we have done.

Finally we might feel worthless and beat up on ourselves when we remember what we have done. However difficult it might be to move away from, this feeling is not helpful. It inhibits us from responding to the people whom we have hurt and to the hurt we have caused them.

So although feeling guilty is commonly associated only with worthlesness, it comprises many feelings. Many of them are appropriate and helpful after we have acted wrongly. They may lead us to remedy in some measure what we have done.

Some of these feelings may also be appropriate in circumstances where we have benefited from the consequences of others' wrongdoing. If our parents defrauded another family of their property, for example, it does not seem inappropriate for us to feel shame, sorrow and a sense of responsibility when considering their impoverished children.

That leaves to another article the larger question whether we bear guilt for what we or our parents have done in the past.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.
Flickr Image: JessicaAG




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Existing comments

Thank you for your thought provoking article. It has stirred my emotions that I now need to spend some quality time deciphering. Is there another article I must read?
Joan Moutou | 28 February 2008

The word "guilt" always creates problems in its usage. Technically we have used the word in the Augustinian sense as a contrast to "punishment".
In modern usage we use the "Freudian" sense of the word when we feel bad about past wrong doing without the Christian concept of repentance and forgiveness.
john Ozanne | 28 February 2008

Your insightful comment reflects a very Jesuit insight into where guilt leads all of us. I think your clarity and useful set of distinctions are very helpful in a situation most of our interlocutors are unwilling even to explore.
Ray Lamerand | 28 February 2008

From the point of view of my work in Project Rachel -- post-abortion healing ministry -- I found this an interesting article. In particular, I thought it worth drawing attention to the difference between "guilt" and "shame". In the experience of those who have encountered deep pain and woundedness to their spirit after an abortion, there is often a confusion between these two emotions. Guilt is an appropriate response to "what I did" while "shame" is more deep seated and comes to mean "who I am". While "guilt" is extremely uncomfortable, it can serve the purpose of spurring action to find some relief from the "shame". It is at this deeper level of self awareness that healing needs to take place when one considers oneself to be "worthless and beat up on ourselves when we remember what we have done".
Julie Kelly | 28 February 2008


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