Sometimes, feeling guilt is the right thing to do

The word guilt, like such words as “criticism” and “discipline,” have fallen on hard times. More serious — tragic, actually — is the positive sense of the word, the essential concept, has been lost consequent to its misuse and negative extremes in practice. Guilt is a necessary and helpful human function, because it signals something is wrong that can be corrected. Guilt is to the soul what pain is to the body.

Advice popular among people who like to give advice are such as “Get over your guilt!” and “Don’t let them lay a guilt trip on you!” Both are valid when applied specifically, but both are more often spouted off thoughtlessly and harmfully.

Such is the equivalent of “Forget about that chest pain!” and “Don’t let the doctor tell you you’re sick!” Medical science has accomplished so very much in relieving pain, we have begun to think the first and even only thing to do about pain is to get rid of it. The first thing to do about bodily pain is to listen to it. Where is it? What is it telling me?

Sometimes we need to endure the pain until it has spoken and we understand. More often, it’s safe and reasonable to relieve the pain immediately. The accomplishment of relief, however, is but the first step. We remember what the pain was telling us so as to take action to prevent its recurrence. In most instances, it is still there and doing its damage but only masked.

Fix firmly in mind that pain is not the problem, but a symptom of the problem, a signal. So, too, concerning guilt.

Now, let me dispose for now of distraction by what is validly called false guilt. Such is a reality, and it is this — but only this — that is rightly meant to advise someone to get over guilt and not allow a “guilt trip” to be placed on him. This is when no reason for or cause of guilt exists but is imagined or manufactured. I don’t here talk about this, but of actual guilt.

It is wrong to say something hurtful to a person, and it is right to feel guilty about it. Whenever a wrong is committed, a feeling of guilt in the perpetrator not only is natural but necessary. It is natural when the person is wholesome, and it is necessary to correct the wrong.

When valid guilt arises from actual wrong, embrace the grief and listen to it. Learn from it what you need to learn about the wrong. Just as medicine prefers to relieve pain by directly addressing the illness or injury, the most effective relief from guilt is to correct the wrong committed.

Sometimes this can be as simple as a convincing apology. It usually also requires some kind of compensation or repair. When this is accomplished, the guilt dissipates as naturally as it arose wholesomely.

I suggest behavior has its moral equivalent to a pain reliever. Whatever medication might be used, it artificially masks pain and is typically used to “buy time” for actual healing. We can do the equivalent by honest determination to correct the wrong as soon as possible. Knowing we will follow through rightly relieves the guilt until the purpose of the guilt is accomplished.

Sometimes an apology not so much removes guilt as it makes guilt temporarily inoperative until we have taken corrective action. I broke your window and my confession and apology relieves me of guilt until I replace the broken window.

Let’s remember a danger in “guilt relievers.” If you take pain relievers routinely without curing the cause, the pain reliever may eventually be rendered ineffective to signal sickness. If you apologize routinely or otherwise manipulate your sense of guilt, you will become morally insensitive or calloused. This could render you beyond redemption.

The person who feels no guilt in doing wrong is most to be pitied. To be free of guilt is to be enslaved to wrong.

If you feel guilty whenever you do wrong, I want you as my friend. Thank God for having gifted you with moral sensitivity to guilt. Listen to it and act upon it.

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