I’m not interested in offering another contribution to the feeling you’re having that some part of you is bad—that somehow you need to remove guilt from your life. Guilt, fear, anger, jealousy, you name it—none of it is “bad”. These emotional states have their place. The guilt you feel isn’t wrong, but let’s talk about it.
Is Guild A "Bad" Emotion?
How many times a day do you berate yourself for a choice you’ve made?
Small things, like the cookie you ate after dinner, the inability to make that 6pm yoga class, leaving your kid extra long at daycare so you could go sit in a coffee shop and look at your friends’ pictures on Facebook.
And less small things (trying to avoid using the word “big”, as its use here fits into the worldview of dualism I’m about to touch upon) too—like the decision you made at work to approve of a development project over those wetlands, the cheating on your spouse because your marriage just isn’t working anymore. On and on it goes.
None of it is “bad”, per se.
Guilt is built into our worldview that we must strive for perfection: the worldview that denies part of life while praising another. It’s the story of dualism, through which, we could almost take all the “stuff” of our world—physical environments, emotional states, behaviors, and words—and toss half of it onto one pile (the pile of shit) and half onto another (the pile of gold).
- Junk food vs. raw food
- Yoga vs. watching television
- Love vs. fear
- Environment vs. economy
Yet is the world so black and white? Are we (and our choices) either good or bad? Do we have any right to judge something as such?
If I look at my own life and the choices I make, the answer is a resounding NO. When I feel a tendency to judge someone or something, upon further review, I find the subject of my judging is actually a part of myself that I’m simply not seeing. Then, when I make a decision that puts me closer to that thing I judged, I feel guilty.
That couldn’t be ME! I couldn’t do THAT!
In other words, when we ask, “why am I feeling guilty about this”, we come in contact with the illusion between the image of self and the actual self.
Image of Self vs. Actual Self
The image of self is the healthy athlete, the responsible family man, the vegan environmentalist, the humble philanthropist, the spiritual yogi —the image of self says, “these are things I must do in order to be ____”.
The actual self is much, much deeper than any of these images we construct for ourselves. When we feel guilt, it stems from the distance we’ve created within our self-conception, within our perception of other people, and within our view of the world as a whole.
Guilt is our “actual self” working tirelessly to show us the folly of our ways. When we “do something” that makes us feel guilty, it is an opportunity to "re-conceive" of who we are, and by extension—who others are too.
We go to such great lengths to hold up an image of ourselves, through which we exhaustively compare and contrast to the experience of others, that when we do something that muddles the picture, we see we’re not so different from the person with whom we’ve judged or compared ourselves with.
All of this, shows us the comparisons we’ve made to others, the images we’ve created of ourselves, is a sham. And through the illusion we can begin to cultivate compassion—for ourselves AND for others.
So Is Guilt "Good"?
Let’s pretend that we don’t see things through our dualistic mindset, and therefore, can simply understand guilt not as good or bad, but just as an emotion that has its place. It is a catalyst. It asks us to examine our assumptions and beliefs.
Guilt says, “stop pretending that your are better, or worse, than another, stop pretending that you are an “other”, something other than the world in which you live, the people with whom you relate.” Guilt – and by extension, the compassion it can breed – dissolves boundaries.
Dissolving the boundaries we’ve created in our world is a GIANT mission of healing. It is the healing of our environment, our economics, our politics—the healing that is THE healing. The healing that completely transforms our way of seeing the world.
Emotions like guilt can help us get there. Even if it helps us simply to become more gentle, more understanding towards who we are and who others are too.
We’re not so bad—us humans. We’re not so good either. We are simply HUMAN.