Guilt is Good

Throughout all of my graduate work in Psychology it was emphasized that one of the worst things that could be foisted upon another is a feeling of guilt. You dare not ever say “shame on you,” or in any way create a sense of guilt. If you did, it could damage self-esteem and self-concept perhaps causing mental and emotional dysfunction for a lifetime. Freedom from guilt and shame was an important goal of therapy.

As a result, a generation or more was raised without developing a sense of moral failure. In fact any kind of failure was verboten. So we see grade inflation dumbing down public education and even college. And God forbid someone would win thereby causing someone else to lose. Give everyone a medal. Ban valedictorian. Never tell a child “no,” that could damage self-esteem and curtail creativity. Get rid of “would-a, could-a, should-a.” A common saying was, “Don’t should on me, and I won’t should on you.” Well, all that has now changed in some quarters, it seems.

As reported in the New York Times (Nov., 2017), Tina Malti, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, who has studied the issue of childhood guilt, claims that guilt is an emotion similar to empathy. To know self and others, allows one to experience empathic feelings for the suffering of another, and in so doing, understand at a deeper level their emotional distress. That doesn’t mean a feeling of guilt is a prerequisite for empathy, but only that feeling guilty about, say, personal mistreatment of another, should translate into “feeling sorry” that you treated someone badly.

However, Dr. Helen Egger of NYU believes that while lying or a lack of guilt reduces the ability to be empathic, more importantly is “their capacity to know right from wrong,” and, “to behave in that right way.” She goes on to say when children don’t do that, it should be addressed “with honesty and straightforwardness.” It is agreed that guilt for bad behavior can be a good thing and lead to healthy development, but guilt for something out of one’s control is not healthy. Children should not feel responsible for causing, say, a divorce, for that kind of guilt is damaging.

It’s interesting that Dr. Egger believes that a lack of guilt can reduce the capacity to know right from wrong. Well, who decides what is right and what is wrong? After all, what is wrong for you may not be wrong for me. Who makes the rules? This position of Dr. Egger is contrary to past psychobabble that taught, “values clarification,” that each person must “clarify” for himself or herself what to believe, regardless of what they were taught growing up. In other words, there are no universal absolutes; everyone does his/her own thing. We are now dealing with a couple of generations who believe such defective morality.

Of course creating your own value system is nothing new. In the Old Testament the people of Israel would come and go in their relationship with God. During one time of rebellion it is recorded in Judges 17:6 that, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The priests had the Book of the Law and knew the Ten Commandments and teachings that God instructed Moses to write. But the Israelites would at times ignore the teaching, fall into idolatry and do their own thing. They made up their own morality.

And so it is today. When our country was considered Christian, no one would normally advertise his or her sin in public, because there was a sense of personal shame in violating society’s Christian influence. Some people still did “what was right in their own eyes,” but not publically. Well, all that has now changed. Some seem to glory in what used to be debased lifestyles. Respect for others is now disrespect for all including parents. Substance abuse is out of control. Lack of self-respect is now glossed over with, “I’m just being honest and true to myself.”

Growing up in an older, inner-city area referred to as, “down by the sawmill,” a boy on the street over was rumored to smoke marijuana. He never said anything about it, but he no doubt knew why we avoided him. Using drugs (alcohol was ignored) was not accepted in polite society. It used to be said that the road to ruin was, “Wine, Women and Song,” but those have now been replaced with the road to being “cool” as including “Drugs, Sex and Rock ‘n Roll.” I believe that professionals in the mold of Dr. Egger might say that there needs to be a sense of guilt in all of this in order to distinguish “right from wrong.”

Dennis Prager recently reported (Oct., 2017) on a poll where people were asked that if faced with a decision to save, say, a dog or person from an oncoming vehicle, which would it be? The answer was different depending on whether or not the person was known, or whether or not the dog belonged to the onlooker. It is startling that anyone would choose to save the dog over the human in any situation, but many did. The fact that, for many, human life can have less value than any animal is hard to believe. Of course human life in general has become cheapened. Some advocate, and practice, the killing of police. Some walk in churches and other places to kill as many as possible. Unborn babies are murdered in record numbers.

For millennia that which distinguished Judeo/Christian society from others, was the behavior of people regarding drugs, sex, life and respect. Proverbs 20:1 states, “Wine is a mocker and strong drink is a brawler; whoever goes astray by them is not wise.” The Bible is clear about behavior regarding sexual activity. I Thessalonians 4: 3b-5 states, “that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God.” The value of each life is sacred, “You shall not murder” (Deut. 5:17). And finally, respect, “Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king” (I Peter 2:17).

The above is but a few, and maybe not the best, of the myriad of Scripture that give instruction on personal behavior. For you older folks, you lived during the time when healthy guilt and shame was common practice in our formerly Christian nation. According to these recent researchers we need guilt to feel sorry for the wrong we have done. This turn-a-bout may signal a change in the way social science begins to think about the human condition. This is getting closer to the “good old days,” that understood more accurately human nature and had real and simple solutions. What is left out though, is the need to “clear our conscience” by repentance.

To feel guilty and empathize is important, however it is only complete when we confess to God through Christ and receive forgiveness. “Existential anxiety,” common to humanity, is nothing but the yearning of the heart for God. We know something is missing and guilt is a continual reminder of that need. I John 1:9 reads, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Few understand the blessings to everyone that occurs in a Christian society.  American poet James Russell Lowell stated it well, “I challenge any skeptic to find a ten square mile spot on this planet where they can live their lives in peace and safety and decency, where womanhood is honored, where infancy and old age are revered, where they can educate their children, where the Gospel of Jesus Christ has not gone first to prepare the way.”

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