- Remorse caused by feeling responsible for some offence
I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry. I feel really bad. I didn’t mean…
Like many things in life, I often ask myself, is guilt real? If so, where is it and what is it? To understand guilt, we have to go into the mind of someone who has done something “wrong” (contrary to conscience or morality or law), or who has voluntarily carried out an action he later regretted.
Before we start this discussion, we have to realise straight away that guilt can be avoided. Not by obeying the law, but by carrying out right action. Action that is line with the three key principles of compassion, love and empathy. Go with those, and you can’t go wrong. The end.
But life isn’t like that, is it? We’re not all “perfect,” and in fact, none of us are, or ever will be. Perfection does not exist, except as opinion.
Take the woman, who has been married for 25 years to the same man. She has brought up a beautiful family of three children, worked hard, and looked after her husband. Through sheer chance, she meets a man at a class she is attending, and they go out for a couple of drinks together.
Before long, a full blown affair is in swing, and they are seeing each other a couple of times a week. The affair isn’t serious, but for the woman, this is the most alive she has felt in years. She enjoys the passion and the clandestine meetings. She enjoys this double life she is leading, and although she doesn’t want to hurt her husband, he had an affair several years ago, “so this makes us even.” The affair carries on for several months, until she decides to end it.
She hadn’t seen the man for over six months, and didn’t think about him, but what she did think about all the time, is how she cheated on her husband. The lies she told to cover up her actions. Having sex with a man she barely knew! How terrible the pain. She was truly suffering now. Why had she done such a terrible thing, how could she? After all her husband had done for her.
She was beside herself with guilt. She couldn’t go on sleeping in the same bed with him now, not after all she had done. She wasn’t worthy of his love. How could he bear to look at her? She was a despicable woman and she deserved all she got now. She didn’t deserve any more happiness in life after her betrayal of the man she married. How she cried every night. How she chastised herself for being so stupid. How could she, an intelligent woman, who had brought up three children so well, have turned into a common whore. That’s all she thought of herself. What was she thinking?
What had happened to the mild mannered community minded woman had been? How had she turned into this other woman?
Every day she tortured herself about the affair. One minute deciding to tell her husband, the next thinking about running away. She even contemplated suicide…
In the end, after much deliberation, she told her husband. How did she feel when she told him? Was she scared? How did she feel afterwards? Relieved?
It is incredible the pressure we put ourselves under isn’t it?
Guilt is not real. We can’t see it, we can’t touch it, and no one can show it to us. It is something which sits inside the mind, but eats away at us every day. Why?
Most people in the world have a conscience (conformity to one’s own sense of right conduct), and we know when we breach it. That’s where guilt comes in. It’s amazing isn’t it, that our own mind would make us feel so bad about something it had thought was perfectly acceptable to do at an earlier period.
If the woman had considered the affair using right action before embarking on it, there would be no guilt. She obviously believed in the past that having affairs was wrong, and when she herself embarked upon one, her conscience let her know it was wrong again, and again, and again, until finally, she had to own up to it.
Some people feel so guilty about wrong action, that they do indeed kill themselves. How sad that someone actually terminates their own precious life, because they are worried about what people will say or do.
The way forward is right action. Where your conduct follows what you believe is right or wrong. If you believe it is right to have an affair, you will have one with no guilt, but this topic isn’t about right and wrong, that is up to you the individual to decide. If you decide it is wrong to have an affair and have one anyway, your ever present censor (someone who censures or condemns) will be ready to beat you (or your mind anyway) up for as long as it takes. That is why murderers and others who have committed serious offences against people sometimes have a need to own up. They just can’t bear the pain in their minds anymore.
So guilt is real. Very real. Even though it is invisible to others, it is as real to the sufferer as a burn on the body. It is inescapable. You cannot run away from it, it is always with you. Even if you travel a million miles through space. You take it with you.
“So what you’re saying is confess and everything will be all right, is that correct?”
Well, actually you may feel better for confessing your “guilt,” but the action has already taken place. Someone is dead. Someone is hurt. Someone is crying. It is too late to go back. You can only go forward.
Most people don’t confess, because they don’t want to lose face (status in the eyes of others). They don’t want people to know they have done something which wouldn’t be approved of by their peer group (if your peer group is into mugging and robbing people, you may not feel any guilt, and may even feel proud of what you have done), family or wider society.
We all want to put on a public face. We want people to think we are one type of person, usually an upstanding (morally admirable) member of the community. That’s why we feel so guilty when we have done something not so admirable. We don’t want to get found out and so lose our status.
If you want a good example, think politicians or priests. In our newspapers in the uk, there are constant scandals involving people who put on a morally admirable front, only to do the complete opposite when no one’s looking.
Why do they do such things?
Because it is the real them behind the mask of morality who is sleeping with prostitutes, taking drugs, going on alcohol binges, taking bribes, being corrupt or engaged in some other unpleasant business.
Doing these things does not make them bad people, but when the difference between the authentic self and the projected self gets too big you get guilt. If your authentic self is corrupt and the outward projection is corrupt, no problem, well at least for you regarding guilt.
If your authentic self is a murderer and your outward projection is a murderer, no problem again regarding guilt.
Now I happen to believe that the true, or authentic self, of every individual, is a loving, kind, compassionate one, and that everything else is a projection. That is why instead of worrying about how to fix guilt. i.e. so we can do things that are against our better judgement and not feel guilty, we should be concentrating on developing our authentic self.
Guilt is a pointless exercise, don’t you agree? Let me ask you a question: If you could get away with things without feeling guilty, would you do them? If you could get rid of a love rival without anyone ever finding out and without ever feeling guilty would you do it? How about robbing a bank? No one will ever find out and you won’t feel guilty…Well? Would you?
It’s not an ethics quiz we are playing here, we are trying to discover whether it is the guilt that is the problem, or the action. Most people are more worried about the guilt. They are happy to take a risk with the action and hope they won’t get found out. Is that a fair assessment?
I have lied (on several occasions) to previous girlfriends about where I have been, when in fact I was with someone else. I saw the opportunity, took it, enjoyed it, and worried about the consequences later. It was only when it was brought up in conversation with my girlfriend that I started to feel guilty. Not because I was really truly sorry, although maybe I thought I was, but knowing it was only a matter of time before I was caught.
“Why did I do that?” I thought, “you’re so stupid alan, if only you hadn’t slept with that girl.”
The closer I was to being caught the more guilt was piled upon my mind.
Have a think about any actions you have felt guilty about for a moment. Can you remember why you felt guilty?
Remember the woman at the beginning of this topic? She wasn’t feeling guilty while she was having passionate sex with her lover, was she? On the contrary, she was enjoying herself! It was only when the thought of what the consequences could be, that she started to feel guilty.
Guilt is nothing more than the cost you must pay for having done something against your better judgement (and you have a chance of being found out), in the same way that a hangover is the cost you must pay for drinking too much, and having a great time at the party the night before. Actually you may feel guilty about having drunk so much as well!
So what is right conduct? Is it something you learn from your parents, your teachers, or your peers? Inevitably, you do learn from these people, but who’s to say what right conduct is? The only way to learn this is from yourself. Through observing yourself in action.
Guilt is an unnecessary encumbrance (Any obstruction that impedes or is burdensome). We need to throw off the shackles of guilt, and live in minds free of pain, for that’s what guilt is; pain. A constant reminder that there is something you have done which is unresolved.
So from today onwards I will not let guilt into my life, how about you? But to do that, I must change the way I think, and the way I act. In order to bring about this guilt free life, we must make a big shift in thinking, and in action. There is no time to consider it, you have to make this decision right now. Do I want to live my life without guilt? I certainly do.
Make the decision and commit here and now, to live according to compassion, love and empathy. That is all you have to do. The rest will take care of itself. There is no time to think about this, it is done. The shift has been made. You are now guilt free, ok?
Once again, I hear you sitting reading this, thinking “What was he talking about? I don’t feel any different, I’m sure I’ll do something that will make me feel guilty again.”
But what kind of authentic life is that you will be leading? You are already predicting that (and listen to the words) you will go against yourself. How is that actually possible? Can someone please explain it to me?
You are one person are you not? You have one brain. One body. One Mind. Where is the separation? Who is going against who?
If you commit a “wrong action,” why is it wrong? If you do it, it must be a right action! Maybe not for the others you are affecting, but for you it is right. It must be or you wouldn’t do it. There is no point in us discussing what is right and wrong again and again. Right conduct is easy. Wrong action is easy. It is your choice. But only one of those comes with a “lifetime guilt free guarantee.” Which one will you choose?
Just one last hint…
A. If you think it is wrong it probably is.
B. If you worry it might be wrong, it probably is.
C. If someone else says it’s wrong, go back to A.
D. Right action is always right.
E. Guilt is a waste of a precious life.