DEALING WITH GUILT
A plaguing problem which many persons face in the process of achieving fullness of life is that killer of zest known as guilt. Sometimes it is openly and clearly recognized. More often it remains half-submerged in one's awareness, working to destroy pleasure and happiness without the person's fully knowing what is happening. Guilt can quietly eat away at joy like termites under a beautiful home. The gnawing feelings can creep subtly into the presence of any beginning sense of happiness, killing it before it is fully born.
A bashful boy finally got up the nerve to kiss his equally shy girlfriend after 6 years of going steady. She blushed and said, "Please don't tell anybody." He replied, "Not to worry, I'm just as ashamed as you are." One person described the situation like this, "Every time I start to have a good time I begin to feel vaguely guilty, as though I am doing something wrong. I know it is not reasonable, but I just can't get over feeling guilty about so many things."
Whatever your degree of guilt may be, you will have to deal with it forthrightly before you can know the fullness of life which is your birthright.
The first step in dealing with guilt is to understand its nature. An intelligent and practical response to guilt requires a clear conception of just what one is dealing with. This vague, apprehensive feeling called "guilt" comes from two sources. Although one's perceptions of the guilt from either source may be similar, the guilts themselves are different. Distinguishing the two is critical because each is to be treated in an entirely different ways. We will call these two kinds of guilt "true" and "false," depending on their source.
To understand true guilt, let us review our common lot as human beings. The human situation, as beautifully described in the book of Genesis, is man in the presence of God, the finite in harmony with the Infinite. In this garden of Eden, the human stands naked with the Divine. Man, the created, walks and talks with God, the Creator. But the challenges of remaining human in the presence of the Divine prove to be too great. The temptation to "become as God" is too inviting.
We fall for it. Then, like Adam and Eve, we hide from God, separating ourselves from the Ultimate in Reality. The Bible calls this separation from God "sin." "All have sinned," it says, "and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves" (1 John 1:8).
True guilt is the result of our sin. We all stand legitimately guilty to the degree of our separation from God. To understand this act of escape, which is the basis of true guilt, we may view it from two perspectives: what we escape to, and what we flee from. We run to a false godhood of our own. We try, as Genesis words it, to "become as God." We flee from our true humanity. We abandon being human. We give up what we are, in favor of trying to become what we are not.
In assuming false godhood, we take on ourselves the attributes of God. In varying degrees we try to be omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. We pretend to have power, knowledge, and longevity, beyond the limits of humanity. We act godly--as though we are stronger than we truly are, as though we know more than we actually do, and as though we will live forever.
Pretending to be godly we must, of course, abandon our humanity. One cannot be finite human and Infinite God at the same time. In varying degrees we stop being ourselves; we squelch the human capacities for being sensitive, emotional, reasonable, and sexual. Acting like gods, we "Play it cool," pretending not to feel; we harden our hearts, freeze our minds, refuse to be sensitive to this wonderful world, or sexual with one another.
Like Adam and Eve we sew aprons of fig leaves, hiding ourselves from God because we are ashamed of what we are. This is our true guilt: denying humanity or any of its elements by assuming godhood with either of its attributes. We sin; we separate ourselves from God whenever we cease to be what we are and try to be what we are not, when we give up being man and try to become God.
Our acts of separation are always spiritual in nature. We stand guilty for spiritual withdrawal. These inner escapes are commonly expressed or revealed in outward ways, but are always to be distinguished from the deeds which reflect them. For instance, the escape to false godhood may result in the assumption that one is better than other people and has rights over them. This may reflect in deeds, such as theft or murder. One assumes the right to take the property or life of another. These outward deeds can reveal the false godhood of the thief or murderer, but they are not the sin itself. The sin could just as well occur without its expression in theft or murder.
Omniscience, the assumption of ultimate knowledge, is another sign of false godhood. One may pretend, for example, that he actually knows good and evil. His godhood may then be reflected in a judgmental thought or a condemning word about the goodness or evilness of another person. The thought or word would reveal the sin, but would not be the sin itself.
So it is with all other deeds, words, thoughts, or feelings. Each may be an expression of the spiritual acts of assuming godhood and denying humanity, but neither of these revelations is the sin itself. False godhood may be expressed in murder or judgmental thoughts, or it may be concealed behind good deeds and a repressed mind. In either case, the separation from God is the source of the guilt, whether or not it is expressed in any way.
This distinction may seem academic, but it becomes critically important when we begin to deal with true guilt.
To summarize: legitimate guilt is the friction generated between one's true self and the images he pretends to be. Playing god and refusing to be man create inner discord, a kind of internal heat which can warn that something is wrong. Just as physical pain is a warning device for the body, so true guilt is a useful warning for the spirit. It is that valid awareness that "things aren't right," which may be perceived when one begins to abandon humanity and act godly.
Whenever one steps out of contact with reality through assuming omnipotence, acting like he has ultimate knowledge or believing he is inherently immortal, then he becomes truly guilty. In each of these acts he gives up his integrity. He sells his birthright for a mess of porridge. Guilt is the inevitable result. When a man denies his true self through coming to exist untruthfully, he makes a lie of his living. He becomes false, fake, a great pretender. If he is alert he will perceive the warning signs of guilt when he makes these escapes.
Whereas true guilt is the result of separation from God, false guilt arises from the early family situation of the child. Children sometimes play a game of walking down a sidewalk, spacing their steps to avoid stepping on one of the lines in the walk. They say, "Step on a crack, break your mother's back." The game is symbolic of the source and function of false guilt.
Each child grows up in a family situation in which there are certain rules--things which may be done and others which are unacceptable, For instance, in most families, children are expected to obey their parents and avoid hurting others. These are the rules: "Mind your mother," and, "Don't hit your sisters." In the language of the game, they are the lines to be avoided, the cracks not to step on. If you do, your mother is hurt, or more particularly, she is likely to hurt you. Thus children trip along the sidewalk of childhood, stepping in the clear spaces, avoiding the lines drawn by parents.
After a child learns the parental rules of the game, he may learn to play without thinking; that is, he may memorize the rules, transferring them into his unconscious mind. The rules are internalized or swallowed, becoming a part of his own mental apparatus. These ingested "rules for life" are often called the "conscience." It becomes an internal warning device, turning on the buzzer of guilt when one is about to break a parental rule. From the unconscious mind the feeling arises: "That's a no-no. Better not do that. Step on a crack, break your mother's back."
In early life this mental device can be a useful aid in getting along with parents or other authority figures. By developing a strong conscience, the child is constantly guided in how to stay in the good graces of these surrounding gods (parents) who hold the keys to life -- food, punishment, and love. By not "stepping on the cracks," he not only avoids hurting mother, he may also secure her love.
The childish conscience can be expanded to include rules for talking, thinking, and feeling, as well as acting. From these gods the child may learn the right and wrong words to say, the good and bad thoughts, and even the virtuous and evil feelings. With such a repertoire of internalized rules, he is unconsciously guided in most every type of situation. He knows how to please them, or how to disturb them, if he so chooses.
Because the parents and other authority figures are a significant element in the child's world, their internalized rules can be useful in his early life. Regrettably, their rules have no innate connection with life as it is in the laugher world. For example, suppose mother had a rule: "Beds are to be made up before you leave the house." If daughter mentally swallows this rule, taking it into her conscience, she will have an internal warning against breaking mother's rule. If she starts to leave the house with the beds unmade, she will feel guilty. The guilt protects her from the dangers of mother's wrath. Unfortunately, the fact is mother's rule was only mother's rule and not a valid lesson for reality in the larger world. Although mother took great concern over an unmade bed, reality in general is notably unaffected by such incidental phenomena.
Parental guidelines may be useful in the early home yet totally unrelated to the realm of spirit. Mother's rules are not necessarily God's laws. However, once a parental rule is taken into the unconscious mind, becoming a part of conscience, it continues to be a source of guilt even after the child has left home. Grown daughters may continue to feel guilty about unmade beds, even after mother is dead and gone.
So it is with all other parental rules. Grown children may still feel guilty about saying words which offended mother, thinking thoughts contrary to her beliefs, or feeling emotions which displeased her. Common examples of parentally based guilt may be associated with the emotions of anger and aggressions. Since either of these feelings can result in disruptive activity in the homes parents often rule them unacceptable. Once internalized, these rules may result in intense feelings of guilt about getting mad or asserting oneself. Many grown children cannot experience hostile feelings toward a loved one without intense pains of guilty. Others feel guilty whenever they "stand up for themselves."
Pleasure feelings are another common source of guilt, particularly if associated with sex. The repression of pleasure is wide spread in many homes, resulting in increased guilt as fun and excitement rise.
Because many have been taught to obey parents without question, they feel guilty if faced by a potential conflict with any other authority. The prospect of disobeying an authority figure may evoke deep pangs of conscience.
All such guilt feelings based on childhood lessons from parents or other authority figures may be called "false," in regards to fullness of life. Whereas they may have assisted one in relating to his parents, they are often destructive in the quest for achieving a proper relationship with God.
The risks of rejection by parents and the fact of separation from God are different matters. Guilt related to the first is false. Guilt related to the second is true. The distinction is critical when one faces the practical matter of what to do about guilt.
True guilt, resulting from separation from God through assuming personal godhood and denying humanity, is deal with by confession, forgiveness, and repentance. First, we must openly face and responsibly confess our escapes from God in all their diverse forms. When we do, as John wrote, "He is faithful and just to forgive our sins, al to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9).
Then we must accept forgiveness, fully embracing the fact that we can be ourselves in God's presence. No longer must we hide, be embarrassed, or ashamed of ourselves. We are accepted and acceptable as we are. Finally, we must repent, that is, turn from our paths of escape. In repentance, we reverse the course. Instead of acting godly and denying humanity, we turn toward becoming fully human. Leaving God to be God, we then busy ourselves with the challenges of becoming responsible humans.
False guilt, on the other hand, is dealt with in an entirely different manner. Being based on a mental habit rather than an existential fact, it must be unlearned in the same way it was acquired. True guilt is to be confessed; false guilt must be overcome. Freedom from the mental bondage of false guilt is found by systematically emptying the childish conscience of all its contents. Each rule which was swallowed into the unconscious mind must be carefully returned to the light of awareness, subject to reevaluation in the present time. One must uncover his fears and fantasies about each early rule. Is the bad deed as terrible as he once thought? Is the feeling as evil as he had imagined? Is the word as awesome as it once seemed to be? Is the thought as earth-shaking as suspected? Each source of false guilt must be resurrected from embark graves of the mind, relieved of its awesome powers, and returned to the direction of present reason.
Confusion between these two processes for dealing with guilt, namely, confession of true guilt, and overcoming false guilt, leads to regrettable results. True guilt can never be relieved by overcoming it. Suppressing it out of mind never changes the fact of one's separation from God. Nor can any amount of confession and penance finally relieve the pangs of false guilt. Those who confuse the two often end up in a religious quagmire or a secular double-bind.
Unfortunately, the two kinds of guilt, true and false, are often not easily distinguishable. In fact, one may have swallowed so much false guilt that he only perceives the illegitimate variety and feels little, if any, real guilt. For example, the woman who feels great pangs of false guilt about leaving the beds unmade, may (eel no true guilt about failing to develop her talents. A man may feel much false guilt about being impolite to women, but no true guilt about ignoring his own emotional capacities.
Although there are no infallible rule. for distinguishing true guilt from the false variety, these guidelines may be useful:
1. False guilt is usually unreasonable. True guilt makes sense. Since false guilt is but a psychic procedure making it easier to cope with authorities, it is likely to be unreasonable in the world outside your home. For instance, "always obey your father" was a very practical rule when one was subject to painful punishment. However, when the rule is unconsciously brought into the adult world, with every authority figure treated as a "father," unfortunate results can follow. The course of adult responsibility may sometimes call for action contrary to an "authority." Thus the rule is not always reasonable and may be suspected to be related to false guilt.
The rule, "Eat all the food on your plate," certainly becomes unreasonable for the overweight person. It may thus be identified with false rather than true guilt.
On the other hand, legitimate guilt does make sense. For example, if one feels guilty about being false or fake with a loved one, this is reasonable. Falseness can destroy a relationship. One can reasonably feel guilty about falseness.
The first guideline to apply is that of reason. If your guilty feeling cannot stand the light of reason, it is probably false. If it makes sense to your adult mind, probably it is legitimate.
2. "Conscience" is usually filled with false guilt. What is commonly referred to as "my conscience" is but the reservoir of unconscious rules acquired from parents. Whereas a childish "conscience" may serve well in protecting one from parental rejection, it is a notably poor guide for leading toward fullness of life.
The old dictum, "Let your conscience be your guide," is inadequate for salvation work. Since your conscience was probably formed in your early years, you may generally suspect it to be limited to the prevailing rules of the early times.
In applying this probability, you may look carefully at any guilt provoked by your conscience. Probably this will be false guilt. If you find yourself thinking, "My conscience tells me not to do this," examine the act carefully in the light of reason. In all likelihood, guilt caused by your conscience is false.
3. True guilts tend to be universal in application; that is, they will usually apply to everyone. Since they arise from one's departures from reality, they are normally applicable across the board. False guilt, on the other hand, tends to have local application only. For instance, one source of true guilt is denying a personal capacity, such as the ability to feel. Such a guilt would be universally valid. No matter where one was from, this would apply.
If one comes from a farming family, he might feel guilty about sleeping late, if this was unacceptable in his home. Applying this guideline, he would recognize the local application of his rules. In other vocations, working late and sleeping late may be more practical.
If the source of your guilt seems to be local in its application, probably it is a false guilt. If it would logically apply to everyone, it is more likely to be true guilt.
4. True guilt is between man and God, not man and another person. True guilt is personal and is unrelated to anyone else. Thus the sting comes from the act, rather than from being caught. False guilt is often related to "being found out."
Since true guilt is associated with one's relationship with reality and God, other persons do not evoke it. Since false guilt is based on a rule acquired from others, it is often not felt in the absence of others. For example, one with a false guilt about cleanliness, may not mind having a dirty house, so long as no company is coming. Her guilt arises only when someone "catches her with a dirty house."
True guilt is not related to "being caught." Its pain is inherent in the event which evokes it. Applying this guideline, one may suspect that any guilt he feels relative to "being discovered" is false guilt. If the hurt is not related to anyone except oneself, the guilt is more likely to be true.
5. True guilt is a perception; false guilt is a feeling. Although there are elements of "feeling" in both types of guilt, true guilt is more mental than emotional. One recognizes or becomes aware of true guilt with his conscious mind, whereas the feeling of false guilt is more often triggered by unconscious factors.
For instance, when one has been false with another person--a legitimate cause of true guilt--he is more likely to perceive his guilt mentally, that is, to realize his mistake "in his head," than to have pangs of "feeling guilty." On the other hand, if one disobeys a wish of his parents--a common source of false guilt--he is more likely to perceive his guilt emotionally. He will "feel bad," in spite of all thought.
Thus, in examining a certain guilt, one may suspect it to be true if it is more cognitively determined, and to be false if it is more emotionally determined.
Now we turn to the practical question. What is one to do about these different kinds of guilt? What is the procedure for dealing with them? Realistic dealing with guilt involves three phases: (1) being forgiven for past true guilt, (2) overcoming false guilt, and (3) developing a more effective sense of legitimate guilt for the future.
One working out his salvation must openly face his valid guilt from the past. Until he confesses and is forgiven, his past sins will be an albatross around the neck of the present, constantly dragging him down. Then, all false guilt must be eliminated as a controlling factor in his life. Any dictation by this unconscious gyroscope is a roadblock in the path of an honest encounter with God in the here and now. False guilt is a hang-up, absorbing emotional energies needed in living productively.
Finally, one who faces the future realistically will need a strong, healthy sense of true guilt to guide him in avoiding the constant temptation to escape humanity, again assuming the false godhood which leads to hell.
Dealing with guilt, both true and false, is a crucial issue in the life of a sincere person.