Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week, I’m sharing thoughts on things that perplex me.
I think guilt has received a bum rap. We seem to believe that it’s the worst of all emotions and must be avoided at all costs. Personally, though, I’d sleep better knowing that my neighbour would be plagued by remorse if he looked at child porn, or did something inappropriate to one of the kids on the block, or even cheated on his wife. I like the fact that people feel badly if they do bad things. After all, if we don’t, then what is to prevent those bad things from happening? All that’s left when guilt is gone is punishment, and let’s face it: most people will never get the punishment they deserve in this life for the things they do wrong. If your spouse cheats on you, they’re not likely to be sentenced to a future of nothing but impotence and working as a telemarketer, much as you may think that’s appropriate. The world just doesn’t work that way.
In spite of this obvious necessity for some degree of guilt, though, our society seems to be moving towards less shame, rather than more shame. No one is supposed to feel badly about anything. Everything we do is simply a step towards self-knowledge or self-actualization, so don’t shun the bad things. Embrace them as part of who you are.
What a load of you know what. I once read that we as a society have forgotten how to blush, and I think that’s about right. I know I sound like an old codger, but I do envy my great-grandparents, who at least lived in a time when if someone had an affair, or abandoned their kids, they would be sanctioned by the community and their own family. They wouldn’t be clucked over and told “well at least you’re happy” when they’ve broken countless hearts that they were responsible for. Shame and guilt prevented far more heartache than it ever caused.
Indeed, a recent study by a professor at George Mason University found that guilt feelings are actually associated with better, safer, and more positive behaviour. Those teenagers who are more prone to feeling guilty are also less prone to use alcohol or drugs or to break the law. They are also less likely to kill themselves and more likely to practice safe sex. If that’s true, I’m all for guilt!
A certain amount of shame, then, has to be healthy. It urges us on to better, more moral behaviour. Of course, our kids shouldn’t feel shame because we shame them by telling them that they’re worthless, or disgusting, or a big disappointment. They should feel shame only out of an inner conviction that they have somehow failed their own moral code. It’s our job to help our kids find that moral code, by identifying one and urging them to work towards it. It’s their own job to feel the guilt, not ours to impose it (though it may be ours to punish). But let’s not forget that guilt can be a useful thing.
When guilt and shame go out the window, honour often follows. Honour means taking responsibility for your actions, and standing up for what’s right. Today, feelings matter more than actions, and the greatest good no longer is doing what’s right, but defending what one does, whatever it is, passionately. That’s our new barometer for whether or not something is appropriate—whether we can justify it earnestly enough. Someone can be completely hypocritical in their actions, but as long as they’re earnest in what they say, it no longer matters.
All of us need some sort of personal ethic to live our lives by, and it needs to include something far deeper than “whatever makes me feel good at the time”. If our society were composed only of people who were trying to maximize their own happiness, regardless of the effect on others, imagine the chaos and heartbreak that would ensue. Moral values seem to have gone out of style, but we forget that we cannot exist in a vacuum. Without those values, immaturity and selfishness will take over, as is already evident when one looks at the state of the modern family. As a society, let’s remember how to blush.
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