LEARNING TO LIVE WITH GUILT

APRIL 18, 1999
R.M. FEWKES

Do you feel guilty? There is no denying the fact that such is a very loaded and leading question to begin a sermon. It is a question filled with a host of unspoken assumptions. Right away it puts one on the defensive and causes the hearer to catalogue his or her soul for all the sins of commission or omission that plague one's conscience. Guilty about what, is the natural retort to such a provocative question. Or maybe, none of your business, thank you. Unitarian Universalists do not appreciate having guilt trips laid upon them, especially in church. Let the Catholics or the Jews or the evangelical Protestants wallow in their sin and guilt. We prefer to look on the bright side of human nature, the inherent dignity and worth of every human person. We came here to get away from guilt, not to focus on the negative. When did guilt ever do anyone any good anyhow?

Yes, but the question still stands. Do you feel guilty? In one sense to be human and alive is to answer Yes, if not now, wait a few minutes, or recall the many times over the course of the years when you have felt so. Mark Twain is credited with having said that the human being "is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to." The fact of the matter is only human beings develop a deep sense of conscience, of right and wrong, that is instilled very early in our development, and stays with us throughout our lives. Freud called it the Superego which is based on the admonitions and prohibitions of parental and cultural authorities which are imprinted deep within the psyche. From the mother and father's "No!" to the growing child and adults learning of what is right and wrong in the larger human world, our conscience is ever in the process of formation and development. In the process, which lasts as long as one lives, no one can escape the remorse of the pangs of conscience and the experience of feeling guilty about something somewhere along the line.

Who can say they have never fallen short of their ideals or failed to live up to their higher expectations, or acted against their own better judgment to their own detriment and that of others? Who can say they have never experienced the shame of failure or the embarrassment of making a serious mistake? Who of us has never harbored hatred and angry thoughts in our hearts towards another human being, even a loved one, especially a loved one, or contemplated malice and revenge against a presumed enemy? You forgot to call your mother on her birthday. You didn't remember your anniversary. You failed to finish the job or task you meant to do. You dropped the ball. You let the team down. You lost your job because you screwed up or got laid off and you still feel guilty. You ran a red light and caused an accident. You had to put your aging parents in a nursing home against their will and you feel lousy. You got tired and irritable and spoke angry words to the person you love the most. You hear about the misfortunes of others and you feel a sense of guilt because of your blessings of health or wealth or affection, and you secretly fear it's too good to last, that eventually you'll get yours.

One thing is for sure. Feeling guilty is non-denominational and interfaith. It has been said that Catholics have original sin, while Jews have original guilt. TCBY yogurt once had an ad that said: "All of the pleasure, none of the guilt", while the definition of a Jewish love affair is just the opposite: "All of the guilt, none of the pleasure." But the truth is you don't have to be Catholic or Jewish to join Club Guilt. All comers are welcome whether they like it or not. Even Unitarian Universalists have been known to blush and to feel guilty, and sometimes for good reason.

We've mentioned that verboten word in a UU church--original sin and by implication, original guilt. Tillich once said that a sense of guilt was existential, part of the human condition, meaning that no one escapes having to face it and come to terms with it. It comes with the fact of our being human. We are born finite and limited and imperfect and we find it virtually impossible to accept our human limitations without a sense of guilt. We are taught to take responsibility for our thoughts and actions, and we judge ourselves by an impossible ethical ideal, the ideal of perfection. The apostle Paul put it this way: "All have sinned, all have gone astray, all have fallen short of the glory of God." The cartoon character Ziggy complains to his psychiatrist, "Lately, I've been feeling guilty about my guilt feelings." If there is no escape from feeling guilty then we'd better figure out a way to live with it and make the best of what appears to be our inevitable human fate.

Franz Kafka once wrote a novel, called The Trial, in which the main character, Joseph K., is arrested by authorities for reasons unknown and not stated, and as noted by author and rabbi, Harlan Wechsler, "condemned by a law he does not understand and which is inscrutable when approached. He understands nothing about his guilt save the fact of the guilt itself." He feels he must have committed some terrible crime, but he never is able to find out what it is he has done wrong. Kafka's novel depicts what philosophers and theologians have called "ontological guilt", meaning that we are born guilty of original sin. Rabbi Wechsler counters that we are born imperfect, not guilty. "Imperfection is ontological, guilt is not." Unitarian Universalists would concur. We are born with the potential to do good and evil, but we are not guilty of sin as soon as we draw the breath of life. Life as such is a gift. As the Book of Genesis declares, "And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good." We are born with original goodness, though imperfect, and our sin and guilt derive from our imperfect choices, not our flawed nature.

The poet Walt Whitman once got feed up with all the guilt trips that human beings manage to lay upon themselves, so much so that he wrote:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained...They do not sweat and whine about their condition, they do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, they do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

Of course we cannot turn and live with the animals. For better or worse we are animals with a conscience and a superego. Let conscience be your guide, we say. A guilty conscience implies an ethical standard of some kind has been transgressed, it is a sign that something is not right with the human heart and soul. That guilt, says Rabbi Wechsler, is like pain, a pain in the mind, that asks us, "How am I ill? What is the source of my pain? How can I alleviate it?" The answers vary, but they all point towards a restoration of moral balance and goodness within--mend a quarrel, confess a fault, seek forgiveness, return what was stolen, accept responsibility for your actions, do penance, let go of anger and resentment, temper justice with mercy, love yourself and others in spite of human imperfections and shortcomings. If conscience is doing what it was meant to do, it points us in the right direction towards the alleviation of the pains of the mind and soul. A healthy conscience helps us to restore our moral balance so that we feel good for the right reasons. It also helps us to refrain from actions we know are wrong and hurtful to others. A certain amount of guilt is healthy and necessary to human self-development. It prods us to live up to our higher hopes and ideals, and enables us to be tolerant and accepting of the failings and shortcomings of others because we know that we too have fallen short of the best that is within us.

Another writer, Sidney Greenberg, states that "conscience is a great servant but a terrible master. It is", he says, "something like an automobile horn. It is useful for warding off impending danger. But if a horn gets stuck it's a terrible nuisance." An overburdened conscience can suck all the joy and spontaneity and vital goodness out of life. Who but the human animal could become guilty over the need to love and be loved and then further increase our guilt over our inability to give and receive the very love we need to make us whole? Who but the human animal could develop an inordinate sense of guilt over the innate drives of our sexuality? Who but the human animal could manufacture guilt over the natural expression of our bodily functions, or become ashamed of the fact that we even have a body? But that is all too often our human condition and there are millions of us who have a distorted sense of guilt over these very things. Religion, unfortunately, has often fostered such pathological guilt out of superstition and ignorance. We cannot escape guilt, but it can become blown up out of all proportion over some things.

On the other hand the inability to feel personal guilt, the absence of a developed responsible individual conscience, is a psycho-social illness of serious degree. This malady of the soul is what psychologists call the "sociopathic" or "psychopathic" personality. Such persons have failed to develop a sufficient conscience or superego so that they seem incapable to feel guilt under normal circumstances. They are only sorry when they get caught. They are unable to learn from their mistakes because they lack the internalized conscience that should make them feel that what they want to do is wrong. I doubt that Serbian President Milosevich feels the least pang of conscience over his policy of ethnic cleansing of the Albanian population in Kosovo. That's what makes him so dangerous. But we should remember that we did our share of ethnic cleansing when our historical ancestors decimated the Native American population in the New World, forced them into reservations, and stole their land out from under them. There is something of the psychopath in everyone. We all have at least contemplated "getting away with murder" either figuratively or literally, but fortunately the still small voice of conscience checks our malevolent aspirations most of the time.

The humorist, Jean Shepherd, talks about the "wimpus apologeticus americanus" who has such an overburdened conscience that he "feels guilty when a plague of locusts descends on an obscure city 12,000 miles away. His first question is, 'How have I failed them? Where did I go wrong?" On a more serious note, who of us is not bewildered and troubled in conscience with the thought that the bombing in Kosovo (12,000 or more miles away) may have made things worse for the Albanians, and that innocent Serbs and Kosovars have been killed by our bombs. I was struck by the recent photo of a Serbian American young woman wearing a T-shirt with the inscription: "Proud To Be Serbian--Kill Me." She had an anguished expression on her face. By trying to stop ethnic cleansing may we have in fact hastened it? My moral conscience tells me that it is right to try to stop it, but I also know that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. How will it end? By the time this conflict is over will the Albanian refugees have any country to come home to? If this battle is worth killing for, is it worth dying for, and if so, do we have the stomach to send in the ground troops to finish what we have started? These are the questions of a Unitarian Universalist minister with a troubled conscience. I'm sure many of you have the same kinds of questions and know that there are no easy answers.

Do you feel guilty? Simply to live and choose and make decisions each day is to incur a certain amount of guilt. Some things must be done at the expense or detriment of other things. More often than not the alternatives of one's choosing are between the lesser of two evils, between different shades of gray rather than clear black or white, good or evil choices. But to be a man, to be a woman, to be fully human, we must choose nevertheless and "sin bravely" as Martin Luther once counseled. But such "responsible sinning" (if one can call it that) must be done in full conscious awareness of what one is doing, and why, otherwise the guilt can creep into the unconscious and undermine the integrity of the personality.

Guilt has always been a peculiarly human problem and always will be. And it will always be a religious and spiritual problem as well as a psychological problem, unless the belief in conscience and human ethical striving are completely torn asunder from their religious roots. In ancient times human beings dealt with their guilt through human and animal sacrifices in temple worship, believing that the wrath of the gods for human malfeasance would be propitiated. Once a year the Hebrews used to have a yearly guilt sacrifice which was meant to be for the sins of all the people. This was called the Day of Atonement. At the time the first of two goats would be slain. The live one would then be presented before the altar of the Lord and dedicated along with the first. Afterwards it would be driven out into the wilderness taking with it the sins of the people, a scapegoat. In later Christian theology Jesus was symbolized as the "Lamb of God" who was slain on the cross as a once-for-all final sacrifice for the sins of humankind--past, present, and future. In the Catholic mass this sacrifice is repeated again and again through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the transformation (or transubstantiation) of the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ, which properly ingested, overcomes guilt through the forgiveness of sins.

Unitarian Universalists have always found the notion of blood atonement on the part of a deity towards his own son a difficult if not abhorrent doctrine. If God is Love why should God need to empty his wrath on his own innocent offspring to satisfy his need for justice and save the rest of his children from eternal punishment? Unitarian Universalist theologians and religious leaders in times past have argued that atonement, or at-one-ment with God and one's conscience, are best attained through teaching and example, through love and forgiveness, justice and mercy put into practice, all of which must come from the heart, and be translated from the heart into hands that help and heal and care. The problem of sin and guilt can only be resolved in the depths of the human heart as Jesus himself so often taught. Forgiveness and reconciliation must come from within and must be offered freely to others as well as to one's own self. You feel guilty? That is at once the privilege and responsibility of being a human being. Let conscience be your guide to restore your soul in wholeness and moral balance. May it be so. Amen.