“Catholic Guilt.” People always smirk knowingly when they hear this phrase that is equated with neurotic feelings about right and wrong. Older folks raised in parochial school, complete with sisters wearing habits armed with knuckle-cracking rulers, are amused or indignant about guilt. Younger folks see it as the detritus of the past and feel superiorly relieved that they are not held in its vice-like grip. However, mature seekers in the second half of life are often nonplussed by a reappearance of the dreaded feeling as they grow in spiritual wisdom. When a strong sense of conscience kicks into full gear, every troubling situation poses ethical questions that are difficult to understand, let alone answer.
The headlines of mass shootings this past week are a case in point. Personally, the news sent me into another tailspin of ruminations. The two men, a youth in Buffalo and a 68-year-old in Laguna Woods, could not be more different and yet their actions and motivations were similar. Fueled by rage and mental disorder, they killed the innocent, all in the name of doing what they convinced themselves was “good.” The losses are unspeakable. In the end, the survivors were robbed not only of their loved ones but also of their trust in a benevolent universe. Dark memories of a weekend in May will forever haunt their lives. Do the perpetrators feel collosol guilt and remorse for their actions? I fervently hope so but the hope does not release me from my sadness. Who is to blame for this senseless violence? For such outrageous behavior? Only two men? How will the scales of justice weigh the guilt and make us feel better?
I find it curious that whenever violence erupts in the world, complex emotions of rage, anger, sadness, grief, and yes, guilt arise strongly within me. Somehow, the responsibility on a corporate level for contributing to the evil in the world presents itself on a grand scale. The Spirit calls me to personal accountability and atonement for all my hurtful acts. I willingly respond because it is the only right thing I can do. True guilt convicts me in a good way and I am grateful that my faith has instilled this moral ground in me. But I am not neurotic about it. After seeking forgiveness, a sense of heavenly release descends slowly but never easily. I would rather take the righteous stand and blame others.
Figuring out true guilt from its neurotic counterfeit is like untangling spaghetti. Feelings, memories, experiences, and faulty theology hold many in a confusing quandary. Some people feel guilty about everything. More people refuse to feel guilty about anything, even when they have clearly done wrong. Others walk through life seemingly without a conscience at all, oblivious to what motivates them “to do good and avoid evil.” In essence, we learn these responses when we are young and spend the rest of our lives finding a way to deal with our human predicament one way or another. Although we hate to admit it, true guilt has kept us out of harm’s way more times than we know. But are we truly cognizant of that?
The only antidote to violence is nonviolence, that is, striving to live in a “do no harm” stance, no matter who or what we encounter. I really do believe that all acts of goodness help outweigh the injustices of this world. Just as evil is corporate, so is virtue but this requires us to choose language deliberately, act slowly and thoughtfully, and stick to high standards that make guilt kick into full gear when tempted. The challenge is tough and the cost is high but saving humanity from our own destructive tendencies is certainly worth it.
One thought on “True Guilt”
Virtues & morals can be good guilt, thank you Sr. Mary Christopher & my parents.😘 Long for the days when we can treat eachother as humans on the journey not as groups. Rwanda learned that lesson the hard way, maybe our country can too. Hate kills & divides.