I took a class this semester titled ‘Indigenous Studies’ because I wanted to learn more about the Indigenous peoples of Australia. I enjoy looking at history because I enjoy discovering where the patterns that form todays so-called ‘societal norms’ have originated.
In one of our first lectures our professor told us, ‘you may leave this class feeling awful. You may discover that, for this class, guilt is a worthwhile emotion’. I’m paraphrasing, but I did write ‘guilt is a worthwhile emotion’ with my teachers name underneath it (and several underlines) in my lecture pad.
From a personal experience I knew exactly what that quote (out of context) meant. In a discussion with a friend we both noted that we had done things in our pasts which were cruel – less because we wanted to be cruel, but more so because we were insecure and often did not realise this. These days however it seems that life has slowed down. It is less cut-throat for whatever reason. There is less necessity for intimidating behaviours. Perhaps we are less intimidated by our situations nowadays. Whatever the reason it seems that I have been able to slow down and assess my thoughts and actions from several angles before putting them into play. My past, it seems, has become a collection of empirical evidence designed to make a better person. I feel deeply horrified by those acts of harm I have committed in the past, but I understand that they are in the past, they were created out of situations and reactions which are no longer applicable. I have no need for those reactions now. I can cast away the defences I once needed in order to function properly in THAT world.
We are a collection of thoughts, emotions, histories (global, institutional and inter-personal) and even perspectives which are not entirely our own. They belong, somewhat, to our mothers, fathers, siblings, friends. They belong to our teachers, our favourite news anchor, the celebrities, authors and other content creators we subscribe to. They belong to culturally normative behaviour and systematic desensitisation. They shape us, make us a whole. They give us depth and characterise who we are according to the worlds we exist betwixt and between. We are, in a way, multi-dimensional travellers crossing between waves and rarely feeling the current we have mixed up in storms of emotion, action and creation. Remember Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll’s great story of the girl who fell down the rabbit hole? Remember when Alice was asked by that Hookah smoking caterpillar, ‘who are you?’ and her first thought was, ‘I don’t know. I’m sure I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed several times since then’.
We have all changed ‘several times since then’. Defensiveness is such a useless paradigm to live one’s life by. What is the point of defending the wrongful actions of who you were yesterday, if today you have been made aware of your own ignorance? Embrace it. Remember, we just pretend. We are so highly unaware of the amount of things going on around us; the bugs crawling through dirt; the mice burrowing; the buzzing, cracking and needling of fractals in the air around us. There is no humiliation in accepting that you are, were or have been wrong. To be ‘wrong’ is not awful. Perhaps to commit harmful acts against others is awful, but this is where I have found the value of guilt as, like my teacher said, being a worthwhile emotion.
To know that something was ‘wrong’, ‘cruel’ or harmful is to know the difference between our self-defined notions of justice and injustice. To feel badly about this, for our conscience to roar at us about this, we should calmly accept and move on. We did a ‘bad’ thing. We identified that we did a ‘bad’ thing. The fact is that now we can recognise, identify and curb these behaviours when they rise their hydra-like forms once more and threaten to tear us apart with not three but five heads. We become stronger with every instance of recognition.
Guilt is a very worthwhile emotion when we take defensiveness out of the equation. It would be much worse, wouldn't it, to recognise our bad behaviours and not feel adversely toward them?
To recognise ‘bad’ and be okay with it, isn’t that the definition of evil? I think I gained that golden sliver of insight from a TV show, but I stand by it. To recognise bad and use that to prompt us to continuously better ourselves, every day, that is a war well worth fighting for.
Is there a danger in recognising our guilt as conscience? Of course. There is the guilt of recognising any behaviours we wish to remove from ourselves and that is that we may only fight the battle but fall back when the war is called. When the armies descend upon us to inform us of every aspect of our life this behaviour has seeped into; every other person connected to us who has taken this behaviour from us, from others, from the world at large. We might fall back. We should not.
To recognise the divisive behaviours that have been constructed around us, beckoning us to squeeze ourselves further and further inside their gripping moulds, cannot be where the fight ends. Recognition is certainly a valuable effort, but if that is where our efforts end then what have we gained from this assertion? Not very much.
Guilt is a worthwhile emotion because it teaches us that we too are guilty of the hurts others inflict upon us when they adhere too strongly to a perceived reality we do not fit inside. We must practice flexibility with our beliefs. This is hard because people are so intrinsically tied to their beliefs. In the end our beliefs are really all we have, but to deconstruct them and find something new? Isn’t that so much more worthwhile? It is a threatening concept, but why are we so okay with the way things are, knowing they could be so much worse, that we shy away from inquisition?
Guilt is, in a way, the practice of empathy. If we can recognise how others view our behaviour we are tied more strongly to the feelings outside of us, we are witnessing the effects our personal universe has on those around us. We can study emotional and logical responses and work for a better way of imbuing a better message into those around us. Guilt is a highly valuable emotion.
For me guilt can be a behavioural monitor. When I feel guilty it is because I have not aligned my actions with my goals and beliefs. I adhere to a certain notion of justice/injustice as well as an idea of ‘who I want to be’. When I reflect on something I have done and feel guilty this is simply my conscience telling me that I did not adhere to my own ideal principles. I am not building the ‘me’ that I want to be. I am in fact self-sabotaging a little bit. The more I curb these behaviours the better.
Guilt can be such a valuable tool – all emotions can be – if we learn how to correctly apply them to life. Happiness, guilt, ecstasy, anger, they each hold particular keys to particular analytical skills and the lessons that can be taken from these.