by Lawrence H. Staples
In the conventional view, guilt is important because it helps us remain "good." It helps protect society's boundaries. While the conventional view of guilt is part of the truth, it is not the whole truth. The meaning of guilt is far more complicated.
While guilt does play an important role in the maintenance of society's stability, it also creates an enormous problem. It can deter us from being "bad" when that is exactly what is needed. Increasingly, during my years of work as a psychoanalyst, it became clear to me that if individuals could not sin, and then suffer the subsequent guilt, they could not fully develop themselves and their gifts. If individuals could not develop fully, neither could society, as society is a sum of the individuals that comprise it. I began to wonder what human development would look like, if all of us could actually live innocently behind the barbed wire fence of guilt that convention erects to separate us from forbidden territory, and its forbidden fruit. I was curious as to what kind of fruit might come from trees that grow only on conventionally sanctioned ground. Would we have had a Socrates, or a Galileo, or a Solzhenitsyn or a Rushdie?
My suspicions about the exclusive value of a life of innocence led me to an idea I call "Good Guilt". The idea was born from the commonplace observation that there are times in our lives when the experience of guilt actually was a signal of having done something good, even essential to nurture us. While the guilt probably did not feel like "Good Guilt" at the time of transgression, the "sin" that caused the guilt is sometimes viewed in retrospect as having brought something valuable to our lives. Examples might include divorces, separations from partners and friends, giving up family-approved or family-dictated careers, or even marriages that are opposed by one's family on the grounds of race, religion, gender, or social status. It might also include the expression of qualities previously rejected as unacceptable, like anger and selfishness. Later in life we may look at guilt thus incurred in a different light.
There are many examples of "Good Guilt." Two recent examples are Barack Obama and Scott McClellan. No doubt they suffered guilt as a result of their decisions to sever relations with beloved church in the case of Barack Obama, and beloved leader and current political regime in the case of Scott McClellan. It is "Good Guilt" because what they did needed to be done for the country, their own interests, and their souls. In these cases, guilt, which is inevitable, should nevertheless be incurred and borne.
In the struggle between the conflicting human tendencies to be both "good" and "bad," there is a problem, if we try to be exclusively good. We may, by staying inside the fence, avoid being castigated by society. We may also avoid castigating ourselves with self-punishing guilt. In the process, however, we also avoid large parts of our self. In so doing, we may please parents and society, but sin against our self.
Reflections on the well-known myth of Prometheus reinforced my unconventional line of thought concerning guilt. This myth tells us Prometheus stole fire from the gods and made it available for use by humans. He suffered for his sin. Zeus had him chained to a rock where an eagle pecked and tore daily at his liver. But human society would have suffered if he had not committed it. Thus, the life of Prometheus portrays a mythological model for guilt that is different from the conventional view. The Promethean model of guilt suggests the importance of sinning and incurring guilt in order to obtain needed—but forbidden things. This is the conclusion I reach in my recently published book, Guilt with a Twist: The Promethean Way, except that I state the case a bit stronger. I assert that we must sin and incur guilt, if we are to grow and reach our full potential.
"Life inevitably confronts us with the Promethean dilemma: Do we live our lives without fire and the heat and light it provides, or do we sin and incur guilt to achieve the important developments we need? The contribution virtue can make to society must be acknowledged. There indeed are sins that are destructive; there also are sins that benefit."
I have also concluded that we miss the point, if we think guilt has only a moral function. Guilt is in many ways morally neutral. We can feel guilty if we work too hard or too little. We can feel guilty if we are too assertive or not assertive enough. A woman feels guilty if she has a career and she feels guilty if she doesn't have one. We might feel guilty, if we refuse to steal, while we watch our children die of starvation. We can feel guilty at either of the opposite poles. An important purpose of guilt, in my view, is to compensate, to help keep one side of the opposites from hijacking the psyche and driving the other side out. Here, guilt's purpose is not the maintenance of morals; it is the maintenance of the opposites and psychic wholeness. It follows, then, that guilt is an important instrument in the psyche's system of self-regulation. Just as our physical body has a mechanism of homeostasis, where, for example, we sweat automatically to cool ourselves when we get overheated, so our psyche has a similar mechanism.
"Despite its contribution to psychic stability, guilt disturbs our emotional and mental tranquility. Like Prometheus, we suffer the pain of guilt, even if it was incurred for something beneficial. Promethean Guilt contains the seeds of its own atonement. What is "sinfully" and "guiltily" acquired is given back to the community as an expiation."
An important lesson we need to learn is simply this: If we are feeling guilty, we should not be too quick to conclude or interpret that those feelings of guilt necessarily mean that we are doing something "bad". We may actually be doing something "good" for our own growth as well as society's. The guilt feelings always need to be acknowledged and always, and I emphasize always, need to be examined and evaluated on their merits and in accordance with one's conscience. But it is important to note that the meaning of guilt is probably far more complicated than we have ever been taught.
About the Author:
Lawrence Staples is a 76 year-old psychoanalyst, still actively practicing in Washington, DC. After receiving AB and MBA degrees from Harvard, Lawrence spent the next 22 years with a Fortune 500 company, where he became an officer and a corporate vice president. When he was 50, he made a midlife career change and entered the C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich, Switzerland, where he spent nine years in training to become a psychoanalyst. Lawrence has a Ph.D. in psychology and a Diploma in Analytical Psychology from the Zurich Institute. Learn more about Lawrence Staples and his recently published book Guilt with a Twist at GoodGuilt.com