Guilt: The Unwelcome Companion

Guilt is a hefty load which can’t be seen, but which many people carry. It’s a common cause of physical tension and mental distress; a psychic burden which has been carried by many celebrities throughout their lives. James Ellroy, the American crime writer, tells how he was brutally beaten by his mother on his tenth birthday .To get his revenge he wished her dead, reciting a hex he’d discovered in a book of spells and witchcraft. Three months later, as if by magic, his mother was murdered. Now, after a lapse of many years, he still can’t shake off the guilt that stemmed from that denouement. Tolstoy’s adult life was also plagued by chronic guilt. He believed, and constantly preached, that men were born equal, yet he lived the life of a wealthy, pampered aristocrat. ‘We are all brothers,’ he wrote, ‘yet every morning a brother or a sister must empty the bedroom slops for me.’ Since he couldn’t face the idea of giving up his ancestral perks, he decided to blunt his conscience. But the guilt remained, for as he wrote, ‘even if some men succeed in dulling their conscience, they cannot dull their fears.’ This inner angst is most commonly experienced by sensitive people, and those with high, inflexible, moral standards. A recent study of family doctors, revealed that the ones who experience most stress at work are the perfectionists who tend to blame themselves whenever things went wrong. Guilt is not inborn, it’s something we acquire. It arises when we feel we’ve violated the accepted moral standards, or behaved contrary to our conscience, the stern, internal adjudicator which is also the product of the culture in which we’ve been reared.

Throughout time guilt has been used as a weapon of control. That conditioning starts the moment we leave the cradle, when our parents start scolding us for being naughty boys and girls. Freud believed that this development of the super ego was the main bastion of civilization, and also the prime obstacle to the pursuit of happiness, since an over powerful superego can easily check the id from attaining its hedonistic goals. This has been a powerful tool in the hands of evangelical killjoys, for whom everything is good providing it doesn’t give us pleasure. That was the conclusion of the psycho-historian Dr Robert Ray Lifton, who made a special study of religious cults and found that guilt conditioning was one of the major tricks they used to exercise control over their devotees. They first create ‘a guilt and shame milieu by holding up standards of perfection that no human being can accomplish.’ After that: ‘People are punished, and learn to punish themselves, for not living up to the group’s ideals.’ Inner conflict is caused when preachers dwell on our sins of omission or commission, the things they convince us we’re done and shouldn’t have done, and the things we’ve failed to do and ought to have done.

This applies with particular force

to sexual behaviour. A few years ago Roy M Anker, a US historian, wrote a book about the impact of religion in early American culture, in which he said: ‘old-style Calvinism depressed people, its morality constricted their lives and bestowed on them large burdens of debilitating, disease-producing guilt.’ The Talmud told the Hebrew people that it was a Jew’s duty to take pleasure from the good things of life. ‘In the world to come each of us will be called to account for the good things God put on earth which we refused to enjoy’. This joyous approach to life ended with the spread of Christianity under the inspiration of the Messiah and the apostle Paul of Tarsus. Since these holy exemplars both led seemingly sexless lives, celibacy became a virtue, rather than a crime. St Jerome even went so far as to assert that: ‘He who too ardently loves his wife is an adulterer.’ Children thereafter were made to feel guilty if they entertained sexual thoughts, worst still if they indulged in self abuse. One young lad came back from his Anglican school and told his parents that he’d had a whole morning of sex instruction. ‘First the vicar told us why we shouldn’t. Then the doctor told us how we shouldn’t and finally the headmaster told us where we shouldn’t.’

It’s difficult to see what purpose this guilt conditioning serves unless, as some evolutionary psychologists believe, it serves to make us aware of our relationships with other people and so more likely to express reciprocal altruism. Apart from that, there seems little point in harbouring non-productive guilt. This is something only we can do, for while Big Pharma can provide us with drugs to dull our pain, ease our anxiety and drown our sorrows, it has as yet provided no medication to assuage our guilt. The best way this can be dispelled is by showing remorse, asking forgiveness and making reparation for any harm we’ve done. Christopher Bamford , the American author, was overcome with guilt when his wife Tadea died, because he realised all the many ways in which he’d failed her during their life together. He knew that to dwell endlessly on these shortcomings would be catastrophic, so instead he used them to make reparation and pay homage to his wife. ‘I realised that there was nothing to be done but to seek forgiveness,’ he writes in his book In the Presence of Death. ‘Filled with gratitude, I distilled all that I had learned from her into lessons that I would now take into my life.’

Others in this dilemma find alternative solutions. Some employ the Tolstoy defence, using their intellectual powers to square their conscience. Those of a less sensitive nature merely laugh off their indiscretions and move on to the next caprice. This is relatively easy to do when we’re made to feel ashamed, for this is the emotion we feel when someone else catches us out, whereas guilt is the reaction we experience when we recognize our own failings. David Letterman, the American chat show host, used this strategy most effectively when he decided to make a public admission of guilt on his show, at a time when he knew he was about to be blackmailed for philandering. Opening his show he looked straight at the camera and told his viewers: ‘I got into the car this morning and the navigation lady wasn’t speaking to me.’ In that way any sense of guilt was dispelled before it had a chance to take a hold.

© Donald Norfolk 2011

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