Coming to Grips With Guilt

Oct 11, 2013

There is wringing of Chion Wolf's hands.
Credit John Dankosky

Near the beginning of Thursday's Colin McEnroe Show about guilt, Colin referenced a selection from the Book of Common Prayer:

"Almighty and most merciful Father;
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against thy holy laws.

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.
But thou O Lord have mercy upon us, miserable offenders
Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults.
Restore thou those who are penitent;
According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake;
That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life,
To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen."

Can I not get an "Amen"? I couldn't eek one out due to my vigorous shuddering.

I was raised Catholic by a mother who is half Jewish (Her father was Jewish, making her not enough of a Jew in some social cases, but, as she reminded me regularly through out my life, Jewish enough to have been sent away to a concentration camp if she had the unfortunate timing of existing during Nazi rule), and Catholic and Irish. She was a triple-threat, although she didn't need any help getting the guilt across when having her kids go to church did the job just fine.

The trick is: what do you do with guilt once it's burrowed into your brain?

Guilt's a tricky thing. It can be used as a tool to manipulate people. It can be used to prevent you from intentionally doing something wrong (pre-guilt guilt!). It can be used as a masochistic device ("I'll just go ahead and feel guilty forever which will somehow atone for what I've done wrong! Hooray!"). It can be used to truly come to grips with the wrong you've done, and help you convey your accountability and remorse.

I'm all for that last choice. It's the most useful one of the bunch. Accountability is the only way to possibly get through whatever you've done wrong, and you don't have to rip your heart out to do it.

If someone tells you, "I don't ever feel guilt!" then you're likely speaking with a remarkably honest sociopath. Guilt is part of this whole adventure we're on, whether you definitely just stepped on your dog's tail, or you absolutely stole a handful of quarters from your roommate's change jar, or you accidentally knocked over and destroyed your mother's 2-foot tall Mother Mary statue (Hey, I was a kid! And boy, was I sorry), or much, much worse. The trick is: what do you do with guilt once it's burrowed into your brain?

Obviously, it's a case-by-case basis sorta thing. There's no one way to handle the stickiness of guilt. There's no one piece of advice for someone on trial for murder that will equally apply for a seven-year-old who locked the family keys in the minivan. And that's just it: let it be on a case-by-case basis. Ask yourself, "Is this guilt useful?" 

Most of the time, I've found that guilt serves no other purpose than to corrode, to self-punish. In that case, you've made it harder to be useful, to move on to the next stupid thing you might do that you'll feel guilty about later. When there is an injured party (that knows they've been injured), they don't have access to your Guilt-O-Meter to monitor your remorse. Even if they did, you don't get a free pass or a lessened sentence because you've filled your Guilt Quota.

If guilt served any tangible, useful purpose, I'd make a full-time living feeling guilty. I'd be a professional Guilt Guide. I'd record the audio you'd hear on your tour through the Guilt History Museum of the Americas. I'd find the perfect font for Guilt.com (an available domain name, I'll have you know), and advertise it on the sides of buses next to lawyer ads, and on billboards next to churches and synagogues.

If anything, use guilt for the comedic purposes that it gives us, like this song we used for the show's intro. Lyrics by Colin McEnroe, music by me:

And in true Recovering Catholic form, here is the last word: