“Guilt. It’s a very powerful emotion. It can motivate or it can suffocate.” So writes Alan Jacobson in Hard Target.
An ongoing debate I used to have with one of my kids was whether guilt ever served a useful purpose. I supported the pro case while my child was heavy on the con side of the issue. Dad is, of course, not always right. Not by a long shot. But on this issue, I stand by my position.
Indeed, guilt can be suffocating . . . debilitating, crippling even. In my profession I dealt with more than one individual for whom guilt was a heavy burden. In some cases, a heaviness that made their whole life seem miserable to them.
As a young man I once climbed to the top of a tall pine tree in my North Carolina backyard. After settling down on a sturdy branch to survey the scenery, I turned my head and was promptly poked in the eye by a pine needle. It actually stuck there and I had to pull it out. The pain affected my whole being, not to mention making the climb down decidedly dangerous. The doctor treated my eye-wound, but for several days I was severely limited in what I could do. One pine needle in one small part of the body affected everything else.
Guilt can be like that. The rest of life can be relatively good, but guilt can override everything else . . . like a small needle in a small eye. There are ways to deal with guilt, which is a much longer discussion. But the key point is that there ARE effective means to heal guilt-wounds so that they do not remain life-debilitating.
But there is a useful function of guilt. We can learn from it in order to not repeat ourselves. If driving under the influence I run into you and cause serious injury, something is amiss if I do not feel any guilt. An acknowledgement of my mistake combined with a determination to learn from it – and not repeat it – is a good thing. To adjure me to not feel guilty over my action does me, and perhaps others in the future, a disservice.
Admitting guilt, repenting, offering apology, restorative action (when possible), and going forward with an awareness of wrongdoing and a determination to do better. This progression of steps can turn a destructive self-attitude into one that actually enhances life.