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Jay Michaelson

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Is Guilt a Good Thing?

Posted: 08/24/09 10:51 AM ET

If tomorrow, you could completely free yourself from guilt -- if you'd never feel guilty again, no matter what you did -- would you do it?

Americans today give diametrically opposed answers. On one side, there are those -- primarily conservative, religious, and traditional -- who would say no: they value guilt as an essential check on our selfish desires. On the other side, there are others -- primarily liberal, spiritual, and progressive -- who see guilt as, at best, a childish form of ethics, and, at worst, a sort of displaced need to please our parents. Of course, we should feel a sense of responsibility toward the less fortunate -- but at a certain point in moral development, most liberals say or imply, one moves beyond guilt toward more mature expressions of ethical obligation. "Liberal guilt" may be a cliche, but conservative-religious guilt is far more common.

So is guilt a good thing, or a bad thing? Is it a valuable guide, or something to outgrow? Based on two decades of working with religiously-motivated guilt in myself and others, I want to show how guilt is content-neutral, potentially valuable, and deeply powerful -- but how it is really part of a much larger structure of human consciousness: the need for groundedness, structure, and love. We uproot it at our peril -- but ultimately can replace it with something far more durable: a security, a home, within.

First, guilt as an emotional response is totally independent of its subject matter. It is unreflective, and non-rational. For example, someone raised to observe the Jewish laws of kashrut ("keeping kosher") may feel guilty for years -- even a lifetime -- when she eats a cheeseburger, while doing so is, of course, a total non-event for everyone else. Similarly, one person may feel guilty about missing mass but not at all guilty about paying unfair wages to his workers, while another might feel the reverse. One person feels guilty when she commits any act of violence; another kills for religion. In short, the response of guilt does not depend on the ethical valence of the action in question -- only on how one has been raised or convinced to feel. Thus, in itself, it cannot be the barometer for ethical behavior, because it has no relationship to ethical value.

On the other hand, guilt may be an ally. In much religious discourse, the voice of guilt is really the voice of conscience, the spark of Divinity that endures even in the most selfish and venal of people. It inspires right action. And for those without the time or privilege to engage in philosophical reflection, it at least keeps us in line. Of course, whether that's a good thing or not is another question, but at least it serves to let us know that the line has been crossed.

Third, guilt is more powerful than reason. As someone who has written several books on Jewish philosophy and theology, I can explain the theories of Jewish law with the best of 'em. What rationale would you like: trans-subjective morality? Pragmatism? The bonds of community? The need to cultivate our souls? Obedience to an all-powerful deity? You want it, I'll explain it. And it's not just me, of course. It really is remarkable: intelligent, rational men (mostly men) find themselves inexplicably attached to bizarre codes of diet, behavior, and dress -- and so they are at pains to offer an explanation. The sinner rationalizes her sin, the pious rationalizes his piety. It seems almost comical.

As a religious gay activist, though, I have also experienced -- in myself and others -- how the power of guilt can destroy lives. Religious gays and lesbians, if we are fortunate, know that healthy sexual expression is holy; it cements the bonds of love, and offers a fleeting glimpse of the numinous. But such knowledge does not come easily for some. For some of us, there is a trial by fire, with at least three alternatives. One may affirm the self and hate religion; this is the path of most American gays, who have been wounded by religion and now hate it. Or, one may continue to repress the self, and "love" religion; here, guilt plays a central role, albeit in the drag of "God's voice." Or, somehow, one may affirm both the sexually healthy self and religious expressions of the spirit.

This choice is a big deal. Rejecting religion may mean severing ties with family members. Repressing the self may mean a lifetime of alienation and despair. Yet the path of "both-and" requires a revolution in religious thinking not unlike that of Huck Finn in Mark Twain's novel. Recall that Huck has been taught that if he helps escaped slaves, he will go to hell. But he has befriended Jim, the runaway slave, and cannot turn him in. "Well, I guess I'll go to hell, then," Huck decides at a pivotal moment in the book. That moment, the 'Huck Finn moment,' is precisely the birth of mature conscience out of immature rules-and-religion. Huck's conscience evolves: he makes ethical decisions for himself, and is willing to "go to hell" in order to save his friend.

This third way has been my path, yet I have found that guilt remains long after the mind has made its decision. How could it not? We -- at least those of us raised in homophobic cultures -- were told for ten, fifteen, perhaps forty or fifty years that this act is "wrong." Does the emotive pang of guilt simply disappear because the ethical mind has made peace? As time passes, the strength of the pang diminishes, and the strength of the conviction of love and the rightness of love grows. For me, guilt only arises now and then. But it still arises.

So, even for those of us who have wrestled with the demons (or angels) and emerged victorious, the non-rational power of guilt endures, even when it is contrary to what we know.

Part of the problem, I think, is the conventional geology of the self, in which some things are "deep down," and others are just "on the surface," and that the deep down is truer, or more real. This entire geology is flawed -- deep down inside what? 'Really' believed how? All that is actually present, in any moment of reflection, are different beliefs with different "feeling-tones." And usually, "deep down" just means longer held. Being gay, when I was growing up, wasn't just an unfortunate characteristic, or a disfavored choice -- it was a curse, and I believed it. So of course, homophobia will feel "deep down" when I experience it in myself today.

This, however, gets very tricky. I've noticed that the pang of conscience I feel about actually unethical acts is almost indistinguishable from guilt. Yet because of my sexuality, I know that the facile belief that "your conscience should be your guide" is untrue. Your conscience is conditioned by all sorts of social and other phenomena, and is not, itself, a guide. What guide is there, though, if rational thinking is just decoration and the structures beneath are unsound?

In my experience, the answer has something to do with groundedness -- with the feeling of foundation, of security. This is deeper than wanting to be "safe." I think groundedness is a primal need, right from the womb. And it is part of why guilt is so powerful. Detach yourself from community and shared social codes, and you feel unmoored, alone -- which for a primate is terrifying. Guilt is the feeling of aloneness, of ungroundedness, of being without a mother, or love. We have done something wrong, we feel; we have displeased our parent or our tribe. We are cast out from the group, and alone.

Yet there are other ways to feel grounded, which rely neither on the dogmas of religion nor the narcotics of medication or drugs. It is possible for the mind to rest in itself, to be okay, to be so "comfortable with uncertainty" (in Pema Chodron's formulation) that it can be at home anywhere. Being able to do so takes work -- in my case, the work of meditation. But it is possible.

The same security sought by the religionist -- and which, I would suggest, undergirds her fierce attachment to values and myths about the world -- is available to the practitioner of meditation (or yoga, or art, or other forms of spiritual cultivation), without any beliefs or dogmas of any kind. The religionist feels that if God does not exist, she is terrifyingly alone. The contemplative, whatever his theology, is able to be at peace.

This is not a blissed-out peace, or a narcissistic one. When something is wrong, the imperative to act arises. When one's own actions are unjust, there is the clear sense that one has acted wrongly. But it is one which, in enabling reflection on the processes of mind itself, allows even the operations of guilt to be seen clearly and distinguished from those of ethical thinking.

Again, the crucial difference is that the groundedness is not a groundedness-in-something. It is not tied to a specific code or text or feeling. And it's not a puerile sense of guilt. Rather, it is a form of stability of mind that, in my experience, allows all kinds of wonder to be held. The practice of grounding the mind in the present cuts through the recursive circuits of guilt without anaesthetizing the conscience.

From the perspective of this witnessing mind, guilt is just a conditioned phenomenon like everything else. It isn't a still small voice, the gateway to God. It isn't the internalized voice of the patriarchy. It's mechanistic. Play with a dog, and he'll want to play more. Give a man enough drinks, and he'll get drunk. Transgress old boundaries, and there will be guilt. There is no "deep down." There is only the sense of belonging -- a place toward which guilt gestures, but which love and contentment may inhabit, as a home.

 
 
 

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