Can we actually be attracted to guilt? (October 1, 2010)

Guilt is not a topic most of us like to discuss. Yet it’s such a crucial part of the Course. One of the Course’s many important (and disturbing) teachings about guilt is that we are actually attracted to it. But why would we be attracted to something so painful?

What I have slowly realized, based on clues from the Course, is that this really isn’t that mysterious. Here are some of those clues. The Course says we believe  that guilt “is salvation” (T-14.III.10:2). It says, “Purity is seen as arrogance, and the acceptance of the self as sinful is perceived as holiness” (T-19.II.4:2). The Psychotherapy supplement says that we are likely to hear the song of guilt we sing to ourselves as “The rhythm of the universe” or “the herald angel’s song” (P-2.VI.2:6). Finally, the Urtext says that guilt is “a device of the ego for ‘atoning’ without sharing, and for asking for pardon without change.”

These quotes all hint at the same picture. We do (or think) something bad and this implies that we are bad. Now we are stuck with that awful message. What can we do? Well, if we then feel bad about what we’ve done, that implies that we care about being good. (When you feel bad about the violation of something—like being good—that means you care about that something.) And if we care about being good, that itself is a form of goodness. We can also prove how honest we are by facing and feeling the full brunt of the badness of what we did. We can also punish ourselves inwardly about what we’ve done, beat ourselves up, which seems to pay off our debt and make us clean again. We can also whip ourselves as motivation to do better next time.

So the bad thing we have done tells us, “You are a bad person.” But the guilt we feel afterward says, “But at least your pain over doing bad says you care about being good, and that itself is goodness. Further, your pain is a form of honesty—you are honestly feeling the awfulness of what you did. Moreover, that pain pays off your debt and makes you clean again. Finally, it is a guarantee you will do better next time.”

The guilt, then, seems to be almost noble. What you did makes you a bad person. But feeling the guilt over it makes you good, at least to a degree. The guilt, then, is a kind of compensation: “OK, I did bad, but at least I’m facing it, care about it, am taking my licks, and want to do better.” This explains those quotes above. This, in other words, is why guilt seems to be “salvation,” why accepting how sinful we are seems like “holiness,” and why our song of guilt might sound like “the rhythm of the universe.” Our guilt itself is seen as a way of “atoning.”

The bad we do and the guilt we feel after, then, form a kind of incestuous system, in which each part feeds off the other. Now we can do bad, knowing that all we need do is feel bad afterward and it’s all pretty much OK. We can sin but then say our hail Mary’s and be done, and the cycle then just starts over again. It becomes a hamster wheel that just keeps turning: do bad, feel bad, do bad, feel bad. Each part of the wheel is necessary and inescapable. We need to do bad in order to get some pleasure out of life. But we need to feel bad about it to restore some measure of personal goodness. And that clears the decks so we can do bad again. There seems to be no way out of this vicious circle.

I realize it sounds depressing at this point, but it does go a long way towards explaining the attraction of guilt. In this view, guilt is as attractive as the garbage truck coming to pick up the garbage. You need that pick-up, so you can set about generating more garbage. Of course, you can try to rely only on denial—denying that the garbage is there. But that only works for so long.

I know I haven’t said anything about a solution. In the Course, the solution has to do with putting a lot of practice into the realization of a pre-existent guiltlessness that cannot be compromised by anything we do. Unfortunately, I don’t have space to say anything about that now. But I think it is useful all by itself to understand more about why we are attracted to guilt.

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