What's So Bad About Guilt?
by Rabbi Harlan J. Wechsler

Occasional bits of wisdom padded with banality to fill a book. Here are the good bits.
"Guilt is often precisely the right way to feel." (16)

"Look at what has become of guilt. We live in an age when guilt is not only mocked, it is trivialized. More people use the terms "sin" and "guilt" in relation to food, I suspect, than in relation to anything else. What is sin?

A piece of cheesecake, of course." (22)

"Pain is part of the message system that indicates a problem with our physical well-being. ... Guilt, however, points to problems of spiritual well-being." (36)

"Guilt is a feeling that hauls a person into court and places him before a judge, the conscience, who speaks out for right and wrong." (43)

"... a guilty conscience partakes in this most unique of human features: self-consciousness. ... Guilt feelings become a guilty conscience, and are thereby transformed into part of the rational mechanisms by which actions are weighed." (44)

"Conscience must base itself on something outside of the individual. It is nothing if it is not based on a law. ...

Because intuitively we feel that there is a law which says No! That is the only reason not to do it. Because it is not right, whether we like it or not. Whether we find it fulfilling or not. It doesn't matter one whit. Because there is a law!

"Conscience forces us to confront intuitive realities without which we cannot live responsibly and without which we cannot expect to behave morally." (59-60)

"One of the interesting anomalies of the guilty conscience is that it places most of us in the position of acting as if there were a right and a wrong, as uncomfortable as such an idea may make us modern people feel." (60)

"If guilt were only a feeling, then there would be nothing to say beyond "Are you feeling good? But there is more to life than that!

"An appeal to conscience is an appeal with meaning precisely because it is not an appeal to anyone's private feeling but to something that it is assumed can and should be accepted by all." (62)

"The first reason why conscience is in such short supply is related, then, to our propensity to see only our feelings as our guides. Guilt is more than a feeling, and if we deny its power as an idea, then we do not recognize how much our minds can teach us about the right way to live.
But there is a second reason why the guilty conscience is so often absent: the ever-present suspicion we have that we are not in charge of our lives and therefore that we are not responsible for what we do. If we are not responsible, then of course we cannot be guilty. And we will never bear the burden of living with a guilty conscience." (63)

If your character (personality) is a significant cause of what you do, which it is when you consciously decide to take an action, then you are responsible. It doesn't change things that your character or personality was shaped by forces beyond yourself.

What you are is the result of your genes and your history. But it is you who decides what you will do. The part of the environment that is morally responsible for your actions is what we mean by you. RH

"If God pulls all the strings, the Bible makes no sense." (66)

"Feeling guilty is the beginning. Feeling guilty is the source of powerful behaviors and of the deepest levels motivating change. A guilty conscience is both the outward manifestation of feelings and the arbiter that involves the mind in controlling the emotions, and is therefore the central locus for moral activity in human life.
Guilt that is emotional and intellectual is therefore a desirable necessity of human existence, abandoned only at the peril of abandoning everything that is worthwhile in our lives." (70)

"... guilt and control go together. When you are in control, you have responsibility. When you have responsibility, you can have guilt." (72)

"Punishment has its beginning in an intuitive sense that wrong should be properly requited. That there is and should be a connection between the way you live and the rewards you reap. Consequently, if you do evil, you should suffer evil in return." (98)

States and organized religions take advantage of our consciences, which require a law outside of ourselves, by acting as authorities to be lawgivers, and they take advantage of our intuitive sense that evil should be met with evil by instituting penal systems and myths of spiritual penance and divine retribution. The state and the church thereby usurp our responsibility for discovering and internalizing moral principles, and they substitute their "laws" and tenets for our responsibility to make moral judgments. The state takes advantage of guilty people who get caught and it fines them. Of course, the proceeds generally go to the state rather than to the victims of crime. The church takes advantage of guilty people who have not been caught and appeals to their guilty consciences by exhorting them to give money to the church until it hurts. The flaw in our nature that allows the state and the church to get away with this is that our consciences and our feelings of guilt are strong, but our ability to use reason to channel these manifestations of our moral sense appropriately is weak. RH
"Since both punishment in general and self-punishment in particular make sense within the intuitive moral systems shared by all guilty human beings, try to channel them into acceptable limited and tolerable forms that will defeat the temptation to act cruelly." (105)
[Do it yourself. Don't delegate your responsibility to the church or the state. RH]

Original Sin Is Bad: "The problem is simply this: while feeling guilty and having a guilty conscience make good sense, they often teach a lesson that they need not teach. They convey the message that my being is guilty and that I am bad. Guilt is no longer an exit point from human folly, the feeling that turns you around to go from darkness to light; guilt weaves its own web, as complex as that woven by any spider. It ensnares the free-flying spirit and snuffs out its life." (115)

"Time won't stand still long enough for us to perfect our lives." (126)

"In this era, though, when religion no longer dominates, repentance--like guilt--exists for many in a realm somewhere between the quaint and the crazy. The cry, 'Repent before it is too late,' is the cry of an idiot, a sign displayed by a scruffy long-haired man in many a downtown that makes you want to cross the street." (135)

"Where monetary fraud is involved, for example, remorse will not bring atonement until the embezzled money is restored to its lawful owner." (151)

"The conscious level of affecting behavior is what we call conscience. The unconscious and emotional level that affects behavior is easily understood by feeling guilty.
...What is found at the meeting place between the moral imagination and the emotional unconscious? Guilt.
... It is guilt, therefore, that can act as a catalyst, as a good catalyst, to induce positive behavioral change." (152)

Some animals are so unconscious they can't act deliberately at all. Some can act deliberately in their self-interest. Some can also act altruistically to feed their young or to defend their tribe. Humans can do both, but what really distinguishes us from all other animals is that we can act on principle. RH
"The cynic, on the other hand, counsels that ideals are delusions and, even worse, sources of discontent. Abandon them, and have peace at last. And that, of course, is peace achieved at the highest possible price." (160)
This brings to mind Buddha who adopted this view and then abandoned his wife and children. RH

Year Read: 1999


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