Is guilt a time-bound emotion? When you express guilt about indulging in sweets, in anger, in infidelity, you are directing attention to the negative effects that will occur in some future time, e.g., gain of weight, pimples, diabetes, reprisal for over-the-top expressions of emotion, or for being caught in flagrante.
On the other hand, you can also be guilty about something that has occurred in the past. In looking back over your actions, you feel guilty about the way you treated your friend, wife or neighbor. Even though this type of retrospective guilt is time-bound, it is not motivated by the fear of punishment or reprisal. Whatever has happened has already happened, and you are filled with a kind of remorse for your behavior, which one might say is its own punishment, but which rarely has any materialized consequence. You might have slept with your neighbor's wife, but unless you tell him, the secret will forever be kept by his wife and you. You can also look back at the time you ate all the cake and left none for anyone else. But if the cake vanished without anyone ever knowing it existed, it's more a matter of having to live with what this tells you about your own greedy nature, rather than fearing any repercussions.
However, whether you are feeling guilty or feeling in danger of being guilty as charged, you have effectively removed yourself from the present tense. When you say you feel guilty about X, Y or Z, you may think you are talking about the present, but you are essentially exiled from your immediate emotions, fixated on the future or the past. This avoidance of the present is not the only function of guilt, but it is one of its most significant byproducts.
(This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.)
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