10 Mar GUILT (GIOVANNI FRAZZETTO)
Like anger, guilt is shaped by personal values and by the behavioural codes and norms of the culture in which we live. However, guilt is anger’s reverse. We feel anger when another person offends us. We feel guilt after we have ourselves offended or violated someone. I can list at least a dozen flavours of this destructive emotion besides the guilt I felt for not keeping a commitment. Just to recall a few, think of the guilt you may carry with you for arriving late to work, or missing a deadline. Then there is the guilt your parents may impose on you if you neglect calling them for more than a week or you have chosen to live thousands of miles away from them. We are capable of inflicting guilt upon ourselves for doing or failing to do something: skipping a yoga lesson, say, and nevertheless ingesting irresistible crisps at the pub, or failing to quit smoking. Forgetting to respond to an email may haunt us for an entire weekend. Guilt assails us when we feel we have neglected or been snappy with our partners or even when we are more successful than they are. It is even possible to feel guilty for being happy!
We also use guilt to manipulate others. We may make employees feel guilty about their mistakes and may similarly make family members feel guilty for demanding too much or giving us too little. I could definitely go on with the list.
On a daily basis, and through the years, the load of guilt adds up interminably and sinks so deep inside us that it becomes hardly possible to eradicate it.
Guilt loads us with fear. Guilt gnaws. It bites. It attacks relentlessly. It’s like a pebble in your shoe that you wish you could get rid of, or some heavy burden. A stinging insect. All such common metaphors apply.
However we personally feel the pressure of guilt, it’s fairly certain that we spend – or waste – a lot of time ruminating on it. Now imagine a life, your social and interpersonal life, void of any kind of guilt. If you haven’t already dismissed this as a ridiculous exercise, but are taking seriously the possibility of a guilt-free existence, you are probably thinking: what a relief it would be! In view of all the various instances that can produce, prolong and generate new guilt, we would certainly gain a considerable amount of time and peace of mind.
However, if we did not or could not feel guilt, we would repeatedly make mistakes. There would be no incentive to alter or improve our conduct. We would disregard any form of social and moral norm, overlook the consequences of our actions. Repenting murderers fight with a sense of guilt to the end of their lives. By contrast, psychopaths often don’t feel guilty. So, biologically, guilt has evolved as a social reparative tool that ensures certain actions will not occur, or are not repeated. It sculpts a better version of ourselves. It curbs personal interests and makes space for altruistic and pro-social deeds. The feeling of guilt is indeed unpleasant, long-lasting and hard to eradicate, but, that being so, it inspires action to repair the damage done (for example with an apology) and attempts to stop, undo or make up for the consequences of the offence perpetrated. Guilt is, therefore, a strong motivator to act in morally and socially accepted ways and to correct our conduct.
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