About a month ago, Kevin and I were walking along the railroad trail that runs through the center of Bermuda. The air was thick, and the trees overhead made a tunnel through which we walked. Every twenty minutes or so, we ran across another remnant of the British colonialism that I was so familiar with as a child. A stone marker, into which is perfectly etched the mileage from a certain point, perhaps Flatt's Village or Simonstown, and the initials of the political body to which the particular stretch of railroad belonged: B.N.R.R. (Bermuda National Rail Road), or, from memory, C.C.C. (Cape City Council) or S.A.R. (South African Railways).
Our topic of conversation, sprinkled liberally with my Tourette-like observations about our surroundings (hens with chickens, orange-gabled houses, hibiscus hedges, parish workers clearing vegetation with machetes, the cost of real estate), dwelt on guilt and remorse, and what the difference is between the two. Kevin started off the conversation as he always does: "So, I was reading today about these ideas. I want to run them by you . . . ." He went on to explain Wayne Dyer's concept of erroneous zones: that we have in us emotional areas in which we spend time that doesn't do us any good. By good, he means, cannot do anything to affect the present for good. To illustrate, Dyer uses the example of telling somebody that you're tired, or that you're not feeling well. He asks, what good does it do to tell somebody that you're tired? What can they do about it? How does it make you feel any better about your present state? Does it make you less tired? No. So, Dyer says, complaining about your tiredness to a poor soul who can do nothing about it except listen to you grumble, is actually abusing that soul. Now, if there is something they can do, like watch the kids while you close your eyes for ten minutes, then that's useful conversation because it positively affects the present. But, just to kvetch about the general state of tiredness with no hope of improvement, well, what's the point? The complaining just keeps you bathed in self-pity, and essentially immobilizes you in your tiredness.
So, Kevin says as we round the golf course, and come upon a field of zucchini hidden behind vines and stone walls, one of the areas in which we are fundamentally flawed is guilt. According to Dyer, guilt is the most useless of behaviors, and by far the greatest waste of emotional energy. We spend time in the feeling, worrying about what has happened in the past, contaminating the present with guilt, which does nothing to make the present or the future any better.
As Kevin spoke, I couldn't help thinking that perhaps we confuse legal and spiritual constructs of guilt. And that in the confusion, we prevent ourselves from moving forward and up and out of the guilty state.
Guilt, as a legal construct, is a pronouncement of a particular condition in which you are measured against the law using the rules of evidence. You either are, or are not, guilty of, for example, manslaughter. In other words, if you're found guilty, there is enough evidence, taking whatever evidence has been admitted into consideration, to find that it is significantly more than likely (criminal burden of proof) that you, even though you didn't mean to or plan to, you killed the old lady crossing against the light but within the crosswalk. You might be found guilty even if you haven't' actually done the act with which you have been charged. It's the judge or jury who gets to decide after looking at all the evidence (or the color of your skin in certain places) whether there is a likelihood that you did what they say you did.
There is always a punishment attached to being found guilty. This punishment can be a fine, an act (orange overalls in which to pick up trash), or detention for a time frame. Rationales surrounding punishment vary. Some say that the reason to sentence people to time is to punish them; others believe that it is to rehabilitate the offenders. That the time spent in prison will turn the offender from one who would steal to one who would work. Another reason to sentence people to prison is as a deterrent factor. Some think that knowing that a particular punishment is attached to a particular crime will act as a deterrent—supposedly the logic behind the three strikes and you're out approach taken to petty drug crime in the late eighties and nineties i.e., you will not distribute heroin, or buy it, if you know that you will face an enhanced jail sentence of at least ten years if you are caught this time. Being found guilty doesn't have to translate immediately into punishment. Sometimes, for example, when you get a traffic ticket and the city in which you have been caught (Provo, Sandy, American Fork, but not Pleasant Grove or Heber, speaking from experience) has a traffic school, you enter a plea in abeyance, which means that you are confessing your guilt but that the penalty attached to the crime will be suspended if you complete the conditions upon which the plea is based. If you don't complete traffic school, within the time allowed, the legal guilt resurrects itself and, having been found guilty, you are subject to punishment.
While legal guilt and punishments attached are familiar to us, problems arise when we transfer legal principles of guilt to the conditions of our emotional and spiritual lives. Guilt, generally, is emotional or psychological state in which we recognize that we have violated a moral standard, or, in the opposite, we not done something which we should have. In the face of our actions or inactions, we feel responsible for the position in which we find ourselves. As an emotion, guilt is useful. That sweeping sense of distance that fills you when you realize how far you are from what you thought you were. Some describe it as an oily sensation. I sense it as a chasm that opens up and pushes the present me away from what I imagined myself to be. Those moments, painful as they are, are crucial. For me, anyway, they are times I see myself clearly. I see what I am and what I want to be, and the two can only be seen at the same time by using my peripheral vision. This feeling of distance then is the by-product of guilt and it should propel me from the moment it came into view to creating a different present and future, and a different me. This, I think, is guilt put to good use.
There are other times, when guilt becomes a behavior, and a perfectly useless one at that. Guilt as a behavior is a constant return, again and again, to the site of the crime. By returning, we confuse the emotional and legal constructs of guilt and condemn ourselves to serving time in guilt that is absolutely unnecessary. Note: there is no jury or judge pronouncing guilt externally; it's our internal dog, off its leash, that returns again and again to its own vomit.
To illustrate this principle, I am reminded of a long conversation I had with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. We were speaking about the newly married issues we all face or faced: physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, in-laws, career choices, how much is enough? She had had a long running (even before she got married) sense that her mother-in-law disapproved of her every choice, including perhaps the choice of her son. This sense of disapproval was so strong that she couldn't be in the same room with her mother-in-law when opinions were being expressed, in particular opinions about whether women should go to graduate school, should work while raising children, should move away from their hometowns, should run while nursing etc, etc. My friend felt like all these comments were aimed particularly at her. From an outsider listening in, I could see a very well-meaning, essentially sweet, interested woman in her mid to late fifties offering running commentary based on her own experience to fill the verbal space between her and her young daughter-in-law. But the daughter-in-law, caught in her idea that her mother-in-law disapproved of her every breath, interpreted the conversation as a diatribe against her every action. I told her, "Just ignore her. Let her talk. She doesn't mean any harm. She doesn't intend any offense. Talk to her about it. Does she know you feel this way? " I repeated this over and over again. Her response was interesting: "I could never talk to her. I feel so guilty, so guilty that things are like this between us." Every time I suggested an action that she could take to improve the situation, like a discussion, or a letter, or a phone call, or an interest in the mother-in-law, my friend cried, "I could never. I just feel so bad that things are like this. I feel so guilty." I was lying on the couch by this time, my head sunk into one of the pillows. After about the fifth exclamation of guilt, I raised my head and almost-shouted, "Well stop! Stop feeling guilty. Do something about it."
I do the same thing with my house. I work from home. In my "I want to be a princess" brain, I would love to have a beautifully clean, neat home, where even the fitted sheets are perfectly folded in squares and stored in colour coordinated, cedar lined linen closets. I would love to have the beds made every day—by housekeeping. When I walk by my son's bedroom to see the duvet crumpled at the foot of his bed, I feel guilty. Guilty as in, "Oh jeez, when will I be able to pull my act together and either make his bed or raise kids that will make their own beds?" Does my brain acknowledge that 90 seconds of effort would produce the result that I desire? If I just stopped on my walk past his bedroom and pulled up sheets, straightened the duvet, it would make every subsequent walk past that bedroom today pleasant. . . . (I just went and did it; 73 seconds). So, what is it about feeling guilty about not having children who make their beds that I enjoy more than a made bed? What is it that causes me to live with my finger pushing on the yellow center of my soul's bruise, to feel the deep pain, in preference for moving on and making the bed?
First, guilt is an easy, effortless state to be in. Far easier to sit in guilty than to move on, out and forward. But, our souls are not part of a penal system that hands out time to offenders. There is no statute that says that daughters-in-law who walk out of the room on their in-laws have to spend 18 months feelings guilty, and then another 18 on probation. We can commit to change, to be a different creature right there. Second, perhaps, strangely, perversely, we enjoy guilt, and the feelings we get when we condemn ourselves to our guilty state. By being willing to feel guilty for long periods of time, by returning again and again to that guilty feeling, we fool ourselves into thinking that we are sensitive, caring, moral people. It feels good to feel guilty, in a way. We congratulate ourselves on being sensitive enough to realize that we have done wrong, and then we rejoice in the feeling. Well, rejoice is probably too strong of a word. It's more like the feeling you get when you've worked out really hard and your quads and glutes are sore, so sore that you can't even squat to go to the toilet. In that half-second where you are poised above the bowl, the feeling of pain, of muscles tearing as you sit down, actually feels good. At least, I feel good. I am reminded through the muscle pain that I have earned that pain, that the lunges across the gym with the weighted bar on my shoulders were worthwhile. But, my body is not designed to stay in that state. I should push through the pain, get the quads moving again, step up jauntily into my car even though the very movement causes me to grimace. Then, soon, in a few days, I'll be able to walk again, without grimacing, without pain. My legs will be stronger, and I will be able to launch myself and my bike off the curve going up the canyon with a power that will surprise me.
However, and I don't know how to explain this, other than by this metaphor of muscles and pain, if I don't move through the pain, if I don't approximate my normal, everyday actions through muscle that is rebuilding itself into a stronger version of what I used to be, I retard my muscle rebuild and cripple myself in the process. If I refuse to move against pain, emotional or physical, I will hobble through life. Similarly, this guilt state that we sentence ourselves to cripples our here and now and alters our future. It's a counterfeit for the remorse that should swell up, and serve as a catalyst for personal change and momentum. So, my personal commitment is, whenever I hear the language of guilt coming out of my own mouth, I am going to stop myself and look carefully at the distance I feel between where I want to be and where I am, and step across the divide. I will keep moving.
Title: "A Man of Constant Sorrow," from Oh Brother Where Art Thou.