Sunday, December 30, 2007

Guilt, the Promethean Way

by Lawrence H. Staples

We have to sin and incur guilt if we are to grow and reach our full potential. That’s the central message of this book. It is a message that is inspired and informed by the myth of Prometheus. Myth tells us Prometheus stole fire from the gods and made it available for use by humans. He suffered for his sin. Zeus had him chained to a rock where an eagle pecked and tore daily at his liver. But human society would have suffered if he had not committed it. Thus, the life of Prometheus portrays a mythological model for guilt that is different from the conventional view. The Promethean model of guilt suggests the importance of sinning and incurring guilt in order to obtain needed—but forbidden things.

The conventional view of guilt is that it helps us remain “good”. Guilt keeps us within boundaries deemed acceptable. It helps us resist doing things that would disturb or harm our individual and collective interests. It can remind us of the apology we should make to help repair a harm we may have done. This conventional view of guilt has an important role in the maintenance of conventional life.

The conventional view, important as it is, also creates an enormous problem. It can deter us from being “bad” when that is exactly what is needed. While the conventional view is part of the truth, it is not the whole truth. The meaning of sin and guilt is far more complicated.

If individuals could not sin, and then suffer the subsequent guilt, they could not fully develop themselves and their gifts. If individuals could not develop fully, neither could society, as society is a sum of the individuals that comprise it. If, however, individuals could sin and not suffer painful guilt for their sins, they might well just be selfish beings that refuse to share their gifts with the community. They might keep the fire for themselves.

In order to understand and appreciate fully the potential effect of guilt on the development of our lives, we have to examine guilt as a psychological experience, which touches us much more broadly than the ecclesiastical or legal experience of guilt. Guilt is the only feeling that is palpably experienced by us as indisputable evidence that we have done something “bad”, that we have somehow sinned. However, we can feel guilty about a wide range of behaviors that do not fit what is commonly defined as sin. Although some may try to define sin as breaking only those rules prescribed by religion, our experience in life asserts that that is not so. Intellectually, we may make a distinction between ecclesiastical and secular rules and laws, but emotionally we experience them as the same. That is, our visceral feeling of guilt when breaking a religious rule can be just like our feeling of guilt from breaking a secular rule. We feel we have done something bad after violating either one. At some deep level, it appears the psyche links violations of any authority—divine, secular or parental—to the feeling of guilt. This is probably because parents in our infancy are the first authority figures we encounter. They are also our first image of God. We are challenged to distinguish between “sins” against parents and sins against God.

We are led, therefore, to a psychological definition of sin that cuts a much broader swath than the conventional one. In my book, “sin” and the guilt that goes with it refers to anything that makes us feel we are worthless or bad. This goes far beyond the violation of canonical rules, admonitions of the church, or even secular laws.

When we look at sin and guilt (or shame) in this broader way, the way we actually experience them psychologically, we can see how they can be such a powerful deterrent to human development. Much that is needed to live life fully is forbidden. Collectively shared beliefs of what is right and wrong, as well as widely varying individual beliefs of parents and other authority figures, present us with an enormous moral minefield that must be traversed. It is a field that is fraught with the potential to wound us, sometimes grievously, at every step. There is no single touchstone of orthodoxy that we can all embrace. The meaning of sin 100 years ago is considerably different from the meaning of sin today. People today often claim to be more liberated, but it is likely that their liberation is illusory. While the specific items in their list of sins may be different from 100 years ago, the list is still huge.

As the myth of Prometheus demonstrates, there can be an upside to the sins and the consequent guilt we suffer when we violate conventional boundaries. I began to notice this in the lives of many “sinners” whom we now call great. They are luminous models for the idea that some guilt may actually be Good Guilt. Their “sins” produced a lot of good for the societies in which they lived and, sometimes, for the entire world. A short list would include Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, Copernicus, Galileo, Martin Luther King, Alfred Kinsey, Betty Friedan, Darwin, Solzhenitsyn, Susan B.Anthony, and other audacious people who pushed themselves far outside conventional fences. Life is clearly full of examples of “bad” people giving something good to society. But they suffered terribly for their “sins”. So did many lesser lights whose individual contributions to society were less dramatic but whose good may be quite extraordinary. Whether we are poets or cobblers, we will contribute the most to society if we commit the sins and bear the guilt necessary to develop ourselves as fully as we can.

The contribution virtue can make to society must be acknowledged. There indeed are sins that are destructive; there also are sins that benefit. There are many books about the need to remain upright; Guilt with a Twist is about the need to sin. One reason for writing this book is to comfort us in the “sins” we inevitably need to commit in pursuit of personal growth.

A real life human example of good guilt is Rosa Parks. An editorial in the Washington Post printed a tribute to Rosa Parks, stating, “She had no army behind her. The law was against her. Only a few people knew her name. But Rosa Parks’ individual act of courage and determination on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, ultimately changed a way of life.” On that day she was on a bus and was asked to yield her seat to a white man. With unsurpassed dignity she replied simply and eloquently: “I’m a lady and I would like to remain in my seat, please.” These words were a shot heard round the world for the civil rights movement.

Initially, “A Montgomery court found her guilty. Local and state leaders in Alabama … moved heaven and earth to keep segregation laws on the books. Mrs. Parks was rewarded with telephoned death threats and fire bombings of her supporters’ houses. She and her husband lost their jobs.” In the end her defiance of the community’s mores helped bring great changes, but at a high price, as the dominant powers of the community deemed her “bad.” From these contributions alone, we could conclude that “sin” can be accompanied by positive value. Rosa Parks gave us grounds for hope that we too can act in the face of overwhelming odds. By honoring her feelings and needs she helped fulfill the collective needs of millions.

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