Guilt, undertaken in full conscience, based on unconditional remorse, is PAINFUL...
Three days ago I was caught taking advantage of someone's trust in a dishonest and deceitful way. It started as an attempt to save some money without "really" stealing, but which at a retrospective distance was not conceivably justifiable under any general principle. It was a disgraceful thing to do to someone I have come to know as a thoroughly decent person, and the person in question, the victim of my deceit and lies, was justifiably extremely angry.
I fessed up because I had to in order to forestall further damage. There were no mitigating circumstances, I accepted a thorough shaming, understood that apologies and offers to redeem monies were not accepted (they would after all have been for my benefit), and made no further attempt either out loud or within myself to abjure personal responsibility for having behaved as I did. The extraordinarily unpleasant feeling of guilt (a combination of shame, regret, and remorse) is still with me.
It's not surprising that people will go to great lengths to avoid feeling guilty - it is painfully nasty in every way, and it lasts. The point about guilt, undertaken in full conscience, is that it stays with you - it may stop hurting in time, but it's a permanent source of regret and personal shame. Not even forgiveness, the offer to remove from someone else the threat of vengeance, whilst it may reconcile the trespasser and the trespassed, does not remove guilt. The personal injury to another, unbidden, undeserved, leaves a permanent mark on them that remains all too visible to the perpetrator; it confronts one with the knowledge that one has done wrong by reference to the moral basis of one's own personal dignity, and it cannot be un-known. The relationship, if it continues, will necessarily have changed.
So, it's possible to process guilt and to come to terms with it. But that process entails that, as long as I aspire to remain true to myself, I'm going to have to live with this stuff, together with the accumulated knowledge of other wrongs for which I take personal responsibility, for the rest of my life. This is not necessarily a bad thing as long as the personal learning outcome is positive, towards greater personal integrity. One must after all somehow continue to feel valuable, capable of good, and confident in one's motives even with one's guilt incorporated into one's biographical self, and, barring (criminal) acts of unspeakable destructiveness towards others, it is not within the gift of anyone else to deny one the right to possess oneself in such a way. Indeed, I feel it is the possibility of change towards a better person that one must keep in mind in order to endure the powerful suffusion throughout one's entire mind of bitter-tasting self-abasement whilst the feelings are at their most intense.
So far, so much a commonplace of human communal life. It is not usual, I admit, to publicly exhibit the sources of one's personal burden of guilt, but there are not many of us who do not carry one of some sort or another.
So why write about it? Because guilt, wrongly avoided or wrongly assumed, can really f**k you up for three related reasons:
the first is that when things go wrong and people must take their share of responsibility for the harm that has been done, one must very carefully carry out a process of discrimination that combines both self-awareness and moral objectivity whereby one rejects only that which is misplaced - hard enough for adults, almost impossible for young children - and accepts that which is rightly one's own. Without having learnt both to discriminate, and to accept fairly attributed blame with courage, one either tends to feel guilty about almost everything, or one tends to operate pretty much without conscience at all;
secondly, if, usually as a result of surviving childhood relationships with disordered personalities, one has learnt to de-escalate conflict by taking responsibility for the unconscionable behaviour of someone else, and to feel guilty about things for which one fairly bears no personal moral responsibility, one has ingrained a psychological habit of instinctive self-shaming and self-punishment that will in time reduce one to a state of helplessness in the normal course of social life. Conversely, from a different position on the family, one may have learnt from the same people never to take personal responsibility and instead to seek out and manipulate the guilt feelings of over-conscientious others when things go wrong, and this will eventually alienate you from almost everyone.
thirdly, given the deeply unpleasant sensation of feeling guilty, and its powerful effect on one's sense of self (potentially either positive or negative), and the difficult, not always successful, task of rebuilding one's self-worth, it puts the crime of manipulating the guilt reflexes of someone else, particularly a young person, in a class of wrongdoing all of its own. It is in itself a vicious problem that those people most driven to manipulate the consciences of others are themselves woefully deficient in that very respect.
I have driven the discussion down this particular darkened alleyway (when it could have stayed lighter) because I believe it is the case for myself that my moral compass is capable of serious systemic error. Not 180 degree error, not even 90 degrees, but enough so that what I can convince myself is an expedient short cut is in fact no such thing.
Not only then do I recognise that I am quite capable of behaving badly, but it is also the case, I believe, that I am held responsible by members of both my families (my wife's and my own) for problems that are systemic rather than individual - scapegoating by another name. Admitting when I am wrong and accepting personal responsibility for harm done thus comes with double jeopardy for me within the family context; owning up to something carries with it the associated risk that I am implicated by typicality as the cause of numerous other wrongs for which I am not individually responsible. [I hasten to add that it's not just me - this is a general problem for a number of family members, and it has also moved around our families between eras].
I find myself in an almost impossible situation (and one that I currently solve by having nothing to do with most of them) in relation to my family which is that I would like to take personal responsibility for some things - it would help me process my feelings of guilt about them - but to do so would be at the cost of being blamed for everything. It's a version of the conundrum known as the prisoner's dilemma that afflicts so many conflicted families - it becomes very risky for individuals to behave in a more reasonable way unless everyone else does. And were the family by some means either miraculous or via a mediator, to be guided towards better relationships between all parties, even one unreasonable, self-absorbed, person can wreck the the whole virtuous circle.
Being in the position over the last few days of having intensely uncomfortable feelings of guilt as a result of having felt able to take full personal responsibility for having done something very wrong, is actually quite liberating. I am deeply sorry, and I very much regret what I did, but I can also see that I can change in a way that is positive even though I can't (because it's not possible) put right what I did. That's not a possibility that I have seen often within my family, or my wife's family. It is one I have sincerely attempted to create within the family my wife and I have made together.