Emotions are like animals. There’s the major ones everyone knows – happy and sad – but when you think about it there’s countless more. One emotion is complicated enough, but emotions interact and feed from each other. We all have a jungle of emotions within us. A jungle complete with food chains. Emotions can devour each other.
Guilt is an emotion that causes much struggle. Guilt seems both necessary to help discourage one from repeating past errors but – after some time has passed – seems pointless in that guilt doesn’t lead to anything. Guilt lays stagnant in the cesspool, festering, relentlessly growing older and danker by the year. Add Guilt to a list of emotions that can without means for positive resolution. Regret. Senseless fear. Rage. Paranoia. Jealousy. Each a wild animal.
The past is frozen beneath the ice, intangible if only by a moment. Where does that leave an imperfect person who has made mistakes and has no means of fixing them, no means of changing the past? Are we meant to carry Guilt with us for our whole lives when no release from Guilt is possible? Self-flagellation doesn’t make the world a better place, or make us better people. This can’t be the way forward. There must be a good use for Guilt beyond changing behavior.
So after you have taken responsibility for whatever you did or didn’t do…and after you have done whatever could be done to rectify things (if anything)…and after you have learned from your mistake…what next?
And then I realized, as an epiphany, that Guilt is part of a food chain with Pride. Guilt feeds from Pride. Basic ecology tells us that to get rid of a predator, get rid of its prey.
Realize that we are not enough, and that’s okay.
I’ve attempted to reconstruct my mental state at the times when I’ve failed my worst, often decades ago. I attempt to rebuild the moment: the information and choices available to me, my understanding of the world, my maturity and general outlook. Were my failures based on excuses or did I come by my failures honestly? These questions obscure the clarity of my vision like a dark cloud. The continual analysis of failure can hinder moving forward. My thoughts pace the night and wear a circular path in my mind. I’ve learned my lessons, but Guilt is a yoke that disallows breaking from the circle.
Guilt – like Pride – denies the truth of our humanity as beautifully imperfect beings. Pride leads to the delusion that we can fix the past. Since we can’t actually fix the past, we feel Guilt. Don’t believe me? Imagine a world where we could actually get a do-over, actually change the past and make a better decision. Guilt would wash away in such a world.
Yet, letting go of Guilt can be frightening. What if letting go of Guilt and forgiving oneself are the signs of a bad person?
Realize the futility of Guilt beyond behavioral change.
We can’t make perfect decisions. We can’t live a perfect life.
Guilt for the sake of Guilt doesn’t do anything positive or make anything better for anyone. Past decisions are solidified as in concrete.
If you have done what could be done – if anything – to improve upon what you did or didn’t do, Guilt becomes pointless self-flagellation, with your loved ones left to watch. Better to point the energy wasted on pointless Guilt outward into the world by doing good in the present. Live honestly and with integrity, and do what you can to help others.
Letting go of Guilt means letting go of Pride. Pride leads to the unrealistic feeling that we can solve it all, be perfectly responsible, have known the right thing to do, save ourselves, save others…Pride is a trap that keeps us searching for answers in human ability and within ourselves, when the Past is beyond human grasp.
Let go of Guilt by letting go of Pride.
As a Christian, acknowledging human imperfection and accepting forgiveness is part of my faith. I’ve come to realize that Pride has been standing in the way of forgiving myself for being imperfect. I am learning to let go of the Pride that has tethered itself to my feelings of Guilt. They’re chained together, so I try to toss them both away. I am imperfect and I will fail.
Forgive yourself for things in the past that you can’t change. From this day forward, do your best, day by day. It’s okay to be a little damaged. Sometimes the damage is what enables us to more effectively be there for others. And we all need it – it’s a jungle out there.