Guilt: The Burden Carried by the Naked Ape

Donald NorfolkTo mark the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, New Scientist magazine asked some of the world’s most eminent evolutionary biologists to pinpoint any of the puzzling elements of evolutionary theory. One of the experts said that for him the greatest mystery was why human beings blush, something that isn’t done by any other primate animal. Why do we find it necessary to show that we’re ashamed at behaving in an untoward manner, an act which but for our blatant signalling might otherwise pass unnoticed? What survival function does it serve?  Is guilt the social conscience that welds us together as a team?  Gandhi was one of my schoolboy heroes, and he only fell out of favour when I delved into his life history and discovered what an angst-ridden soul he was. On one occasion he hit a fractious youth who was in his care at Tolstoy Farm, the utopian community he created in South Africa. For ever afterwards he regretted that single act of violence. He was an idealist, who fasted and carried out acts of penitence because he couldn’t live up to his own high standards.

Many of my patients went through life bearing a similar load of guilt. In some the self-reproach seemed to stem from their religious upbringing, in others from the strict moral standards imposed on them by their parents. This was true of Barack Obama, who admits in his autobiography ‘Dreams from My Father’ that his mother went out of her way to make him feel guilty, claiming that ‘a healthy dose of guilt never hurt anybody.’  She was probably quoting Freud when she told her son that civilization was built on a foundation of guilt, but what she forgot to add was that Freud went on to say that guilt was also the greatest obstacle to the pursuit and achievement of personal happiness. This was also the view of the Roman poet Plautus, who said: ‘Nothing is more wretched than a guilty conscience.’

Guilt is a form of self-inflicted punishment. We make ourselves wretched by recalling our sins of omission and commission. The moment we stop feeling ashamed of the things we’ve done and shouldn’t have done, we start berating ourselves for the kindly acts we should have done but failed to perform. Some of this angst is determined by the society in which we live, for guilt is a powerful tool of social control, widely used by parents, teachers, preachers and community leaders. During the First World War conscientious objectors in Britain were tagged with a white feather, to make them feel ashamed they hadn’t joined Kitchener’s army. Nowadays similar attempts are being made to induce feeling of collective guilt among German youngsters, because of the Nazi persecution of the Jews sixty years ago. No one should be burdened by this second hand guilt. Instead of listening to the moral pontifications of the crowd, we should choose to be guided by the still, small voice within. Providing we do nothing contrary to our own ethical principles, we have no reason to entertain feelings of shame and guilt.

Orientals seem to find this easier to do than people brought up in Europe and North America. An Irish lady went to Tibet to learn about Zen Buddhism, and at one point asked her teacher ‘What about guilt?’ The monk pondered for a while and then replied: ‘I’ve heard of guilt. Can you just remind me what it is?’ To this she answered: ‘It’s feeling bad, even when you feel good.’ A similar story is told of the Dalai Lama, who was talking to a group of Western devotees who’d made the pilgrimage to his exile retreat in Dharamsala. While chatting to them he asked them to raise their hands if they’d ever felt guilty that they couldn’t adhere to the five-fold path.  When everyone in the room raised their hands he said with a bemused smile: ‘Westerners really are different!’

Carrying a burden of needless guilt is an unnecessary cause of stress. Whenever the feeling arises put it to rout by carrying out some immediate, purposeful action. Seek forgiveness for any mistakes you’ve made. Show remorse, make reparation and then move on. Never be afraid to say you’re sorry, and the sooner you do so the better. Follow the example of David Letterman, the American chat show host who decided to make a public admission of guilt on his show when he was about to be blackmailed for philandering. He dismissed the lapse with a smile telling his viewers: ‘I got

into the car this morning and the navigation lady wasn’t speaking to me.’

© Donald Norfolk 2010

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