Now, guilt means two things. The first meaning is that someone is culpable for an act, that they committed an offence. That's not the guilt that we are talking about.
Guilt is a feeling.
No disease of the imagination is so difficult to cure, as that which is complicated with the dread of guilt. - E. M. ForsterWho hasn't felt guilty over something? Something they have done that they think they shouldn't have, something they haven't done that they should have? It's almost unthinkable that someone could go through life and not feel it at least once, right?
Do we feel it for the right reasons?
That's an entirely different kettle of fish, right there.
See, it's good that if we do something that is actually wrong, that we should - afterwards - realise it was wrong. If we literally hurt someone or inconvenience someone, for no good reason, then we should feel bad about that. It's how we know we are good people. In fact, even if we have done the bad thing for a good reason, we should feel it. It keeps us grounded. It reminds us of the consequences, and that even though - for a very basic comparison - we have saved one hundred lives, we shouldn't diminish the severity of sacrificing one life to do so.
The problem is, we aren't rational beings at heart - and we aren't necessarily good at sorting and filing the emotions we feel.
Hands up if you feel guilty for wronging someone that has forgiven you.
Should the forgiveness of the other party absolve you from guilt? You might think so - but we all have different levels of acceptance, for actions that we feel can be forgivable. It varies from person to person, too. I would forgive in a heartbeat accidental attacks against my person from people I know and trust, far faster than I would forgive even more minor infractions from people in the street.
What it comes down to, though - guilt is only slightly assuaged by the forgiveness of the second party.
Guilt is only assuaged truly by forgiveness of ourselves.
That deed which in our guilt we today call weakness, will appear tomorrow as an essential link in the complete chain of Man. - Khalil GibranIn my eyes, how willing we are to forgive ourselves isn't connected to the actual severity of the action in question, because we are awful at being objective in terms of judging ourselves.
This is going to get deeply personal right now, so fair warning.
I feel guilty about not being as healthy as everyone around me.
Not just the fat thing (which I talked about in a previous blog). The constant pain and the lack of lung capacity from my other badness makes me something of a broken toy soldier at the best of times, so I just can't necessarily take part in things that I used to take for granted.
This means that people often have to take me into consideration when we do things as a group, and that not only tweaks my anxiety off the scale, it also makes me feel guilty for inconveniencing them - even if I can't actually magically cure my rheumatoid arthritis and pulmonary fibrosis, and even if they assure me (and trust me, I believe them!) when they say it isn't actually a problem.
I nonetheless feel guilty over this thing I have done wrong, this hardship I have inflicted on others. Which is, yes, logically speaking absolutely ridiculous.
The thing is that logic has nothing to do with it, obviously; it's just the way that we are wired, which begins at an early age, continues throughout our lives, and has little bearing on reality. We don't live in a society which fully accepts the weaknesses and frailties of others - not yet, anyway. We still have this very British, very ridiculous Stiff Upper Lip mentality, which was primarily set up as a way to - funnily enough - assuage guilt.
The Stoics loved this - loved the idea that if you just tell yourself you aren't affected by the thing, that if you bear with it and just put up with it, then everything will be fine. And let's just say that, in British society, at various points in our history - there's been times when it was quite, quite useful for the social status quo to be against grumbling or discontent.
It is still a huge part of our society. Workplaces treat their employees like shit because the workers are of a culture and a mindset wherein they just, you know, put up with it. Our politics has been rife with austerity measures and literally punishing people who are sick or poor because everyone is expected to just, you know, put up with it.
And the moment that we "cause a fuss", the moment that we stick our heads over the parapet and say, actually, that ISN'T legal, that ISN'T in my job contract, that ISN'T a thing you should be doing - we feel guilty. Because we're bucking expectation, we're rubbing against the conditioning of the society we have lived in since we were born and the social pressures of everyone we know. Or almost everyone.
Which is, I think, the only reason why the current status quo continues today.
The soul must accept guilt in order to destroy existing evil, lest it incur the greater guilt of idyllic withdrawal, of seeming to be good by putting up with wrong. - Ernst BlochSee, it's a big motivator - nobody likes feeling guilty. It's a significant drain on our mental health and our well-being, and contributes to stress in a big way. So of course, it gets used as a manipulative tool.
Unfortunately, one of the first places we come across it is in childhood - usually directed at us from a parent or guardian, to try and make us behave. It sticks with you. It's why it is effective even later in life, long after it was necessary to cajole us into behaving in a "civil" fashion. Manipulators will use guilt to try and make us do what they want us to do, regardless of how it makes us feel or if its the right thing to do. Both on a personal scale, and on a national one.
Our insecurity leads us by the nose, and that isn't a good thing. Our guilt leads us, too - perhaps not as often but just as surely. We feel guilt for action and inaction, and we let it guide us without questioning it, without fighting it. How can we stop it from leading us into misery?
Put simply, as I said earlier, we have to forgive ourselves.
We need to show ourselves the same kind of love and understanding that we show those we love and care about the most. We need to be capable of empathising with ourselves. We need to take a look at ourselves and express understanding - we know why we did the thing we did, we know that it upsets us, we shouldn't push ourselves too hard. We made the wrong decision, so we should fix it, but punishing ourselves for it won't help. We were put on the spot and went one way when we should have gone another. We should try and soften the impact, but we shouldn't simply languish in how bad we feel about what we did.
Guilt warns us, reminds us that we're still moralistic creatures. It's the doing, though - it's the fixing, the understanding, the refusing to do evil - that really matters.
And as much as guilt may cut us, there is a certain warmth, a certain comfort, in the words:
At Least I Tried.