Don't Cancel that Guilt Trip

About this article

Christine Gudorf was dismayed at her Catholic school students' insistence that "guilt was a useless feeling." In this article, she examines the origins of attitudes toward guilt in U.S. culture, and concludes that guilt can be useful after all: "Just as guilt feelings are necessary in the formation of a healthy moral conscience and habits of virtue, so experience of both our distance from God and the attraction to God, which is so basic a part of our human nature, is necessary if we are to orient our lives toward communion with our Creator God."

A few weeks ago it was brought home to me how strongly our society has rejected the idea of struggling with one's conscience as necessary or beneficial. I was teaching Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple (Harbrace, 1982), and the main character, Celie, was having trouble sleeping. Slowly it came to her that she had a guilty conscience: she had told her stepson to beat his wife if he wanted her to mind. When I tried to get the class to probe why Celie's conscience worked in this way, there was tremendous resistance. While they recognized that Celie felt guilty because she knowingly chose to do wrong, they denied any useful purpose to her guilt. They were uncomfortable with the whole concept of guilt.

As we went on to read Elie Wiesel's Legends of Our Times (Schocken, 1982), a collection of stories and essays about his life as an Eastern European Jew before, during, and after the Holocaust, my students became even more assured that guilt was a useless feeling. For as they pointed out, Wiesel wrote that it was the survivors of the Holocaust, not its perpetrators or passive witnesses, who felt the greatest guilt. Furthermore, they denied that anything would be gained if the perpetrators or the passive witnesses had felt guilt. For after all, the students said, what's done is done, and emotions after the fact change nothing. Most of them felt that Wiesel should try to forget what had happened instead of dwelling on it.

I was astounded and dismayed. The majority of these students are practicing Roman Catholics with years of religious education, often from Catholic grade schools and high schools. How can such attitudes be compatible with models of conscience taught in Catholic religious education?

This dismissal of the importance of guilt is part of a larger contemporary Western social trend. People want simple, black and white answers, even slogans, about how to solve complex social, political, and economic problems in a postindustrial society. One source for this attitude is the media, especially TV, with their orientation to action, controversy, and entertainment at the expense of social values, knowledge, and understanding. TV does not report and has created widespread intolerance for any statement or explanation longer than a 30-second sound bite.

But the distaste for guilt in U.S. society lies much deeper in the American psyche than nostalgia and media influence. Since colonial days Americans have been noted for their extreme pragmatism: we focus on problems and solutions. My students reject guilt as useless--it does not offer a solution to the problem at hand. Instead, they say, it creates new problems. Celie had already told Harpo to beat Sofia; the Nazis had already killed 6 million Jews. What good did guilt after the fact do the victims? It only created more suffering in Celie and in the survivors.

Ignored in this seemingly pragmatic approach is the fact that human lives--and human history--are not a series of discrete, unconnected moments and events. Our lives and our history are continuous; each moment or event is constructed on what went before.

If Celie dismisses her guilt feelings every time she feels them, sooner or later she will no longer feel guilt, no longer have an internal alarm when she commits hateful actions. We instinctively know this as parents. When we see one of our children pushing another from a swing, we intervene whether or not the evil action is complete. We don't say of just-completed actions, "Oh well, she's already been pushed off. There's nothing I can do now."

When we cannot prevent our kids from doing evil actions, we use the occasions of their evil actions to induce guilt in the expectation that guilt feelings now will promote responsibility in the future. We say, "Look at the bump you put on Mary's head. It hurts her. She didn't do anything to you. Would you like it if she pushed you off the swing when she wanted to use it? Now go sit on your bed and think about what you did until you can tell Mary you are sorry and won't do it again."

But as our children get a little older, the lines become more blurred because we have learned to feel a social discomfort in the face of any kind of suffering, including guilt. It is as if modern medicine has not only made us intolerant of any kind of physical pain, because it is understood as unnecessary but has also made us uncomfortable with any kind of psychic or spiritual pain, whether ours or others'.

If our 10-year-old is recklessly racing a bike down a steep hill and her 4-year-old sister riding on the handlebars is seriously injured as a result, we are likely to react very differently depending on our daughter's reaction. If she seems unaffected and denies responsibility (as would a young child who lacks a developed sense of conscience), we are likely to come down hard with blame; if she is remorseful to the point of self-loathing, we are likely to put the best possible light on the affair and minimize her suffering by suggesting extenuating circumstances.

Oh, don't worry about it

With our friends and spouses as well, we have a strong tendency to interpret the loving support we owe them as requiring that we support their feelings of goodness and self-worth and dismiss their feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and remorse.

Social critics and religious ethicists point to this discomfort with guilt as the result of popularizations of psychotherapy applied to changes in work and life in the modern West. Western society, even Western religion, has come to understand the central task of the self in the late 20th century as self-therapeutic. Life has become a search for individual well-being, for contentment and happiness, with individual pain and suffering as the enemy. If you doubt the prevalence of the therapeutic approach to life, ask yourself, What do I want for my children?

Most of us will answer that we want our children to grow up to be happy and content, to enjoy their work, family, and friends, and to be safe and secure. Few of us will answer that we want our children to be saints, to dedicate themselves to the well-being of others, to develop their characters and consciences. Few of us would want our sons or daughters to be Saint Damien of Molokai, Edith Stein, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, or a member of Saint Mother Teresa's community. It is not that we want them to be Donald Trumps or Hillary Clintons or Bill Cosbys or Albert Einsteins--most of us want our children to be "normal," "well-rounded," and "at peace," free of obsessions of all kinds. We expect that both faith and institutionalized religion will assist them in achieving this therapeutic goal.

The emphasis on therapeutic adjustment has transformed the religious faith of many of us without our even noticing. While Christianity has always understood the gospel of Jesus Christ as containing the answers to the ills of the world, under the influence of therapeutic religion, the gospel of Jesus Christ has become the path to psychic well-being, to feeling good about oneself.

Televangelist Robert Schuller attracts millions by pointing to the Our Father as Christ's solution to the six negative emotions of our age: inferiority, depression, anxiety, guilt, resentment, and fear. The religious person today is seen as free of all of these and is characterized instead by an abiding faith in God's personal, constant, and unlimited love and forgiveness, a hope that patiently waits out the trials of daily life in expectation of the resurrection into eternal life, and a love that never falters or develops cracks.

Real faith doesn't necessarily work that way. Many of the greatest saints have been wracked with doubt and temptation. Jesus himself felt abandoned by God on the cross. Many millions of Christians have discovered that to follow the Way in their particular situation means to risk discrimination, ostracism, exile, even martyrdom. Jesus' promise of the kingdom was not a promise that promotion of the kingdom would protect us from suffering, but rather a promise that no matter how much we suffered, the kingdom would be well worth it.

The shift toward therapeutic religion arose to deal with a modern crisis in the understanding of the self. Within the development of industrial work and the shift from rural to largely urban populations, the way in which the majority of humans constructed and understood their selves began to disintegrate. Instead of people living all their lives in small villages, towns, or neighborhoods of cities where they knew and were known by all their neighbors and instead of defining themselves by their roles in shared work with their neighbors, all of work and life became much more anonymous. Life in the city was anonymous; work in the factory was anonymous.

With the growth of cities much white-collar work became bureaucratic and similarly anonymous. File clerks, bank tellers, grocery-checkout clerks, phone operators, bookkeepers, and secretary pools came to be as replaceable as assembly-line workers. Therapy--whether formal psychotherapy or the more informal therapy of self-help books, newspaper pop psychology, or TV and radio talk shows--became the replacement for community in helping persons construct a "real" self.

Until the modern industrial world, the self was considered simply the person as that person was known by the local community, which surrounded her or him from cradle to grave. The individual usually needed only to add some self-perceptions to the image reflected by the community. This process was taken for granted.

With the loss of many forms of traditional community, individuals have had to consciously take over much of the process of self-creation. Individuals in the post-modern world must discover their vocational talents, develop them, and find some way to employ them profitably in a tight job market, instead of inheriting the vocations and usually the workplaces of their parents. In the modern and post-modern world of mobility, individuals often have to self-consciously create a circle of friends and relatives by searching out persons with shared interests or adjusting their interests to those of the people who surround them.

In traditional society the circle of intimates on whom one could rely for companionship, intimacy, emergency help, and support of all kinds was made up of one's extended family and neighbors. It simply was there; no search was necessary. In some rural areas this pattern is still intact.

My mother-in-law lives in rural southern Indiana and in the seven years since her husband died, she has had to construct a kind of new life for herself. But her life is still centered around continuities of all kinds.

She attends church in the same church in which she was baptized, confirmed, and married, and in which she buried her husband of 41 years. She quilts weekly at the convent motherhouse some few blocks away, many of whose sisters taught her children in the local schools. Still other nuns with whom she quilts are the sisters and daughters of families she has known all her life. She plays cards at the senior-citizens complex, where she has known every senior for a minimum of 40 years, and most for over 70. She visits her children and her sisters and brothers and their families, and she regularly goes out to dinner and various church and civic functions with a group of widows she has known at least since grade school.

She feels that she has lived the life God gave her. Her world has been simple, her responsibilities clear if not easy. Hers is no longer a typical life in our society.

Take your life off cruise control

Yet another factor undermining appreciation of the role of guilt in contemporary moral life is what many clinicians call the wounded-feeling phenomenon in postmodern life. Many of us are wounded in our ability to feel, have withdrawn from deep human interaction, and attempt to live life on a kind of automatic pilot. For some, life is lived amid deep and painful depression.

Even many of us who do not suffer from outright depression are sometimes aware of a desire to withdraw from the hassles and complexity of everyday life, to retreat from even those people we love. We feel unwilling to seriously care about other people or projects. This is a common response to the barrage of information, activity, and demands we experience and to a life pace so fast that it is impossible to respond humanely within all or even most of our interactions. We increasingly treat ourselves and each other as the myriad machines that we operate. As a result, our ability to feel, and thus to value, is eroded.

This erosion of the ability to feel and to value is one major cause for the overstatement to which contemporary entertainment is so prone. When people are wounded in their ability to feel, the sensations that demand a feeling response must be amplified to command a response--thus, the amplification of sound, the increase of violence, the linkage of sex and violence, and the acceleration of image speed in contemporary media. It is all designed to elicit feelings from people who have been to some extent numbed to feeling.

But such amplification does not heal our ability to feel; in fact, it further numbs our capacity to feel. Every succeeding time, the amplification, the violence, and the acceleration must be increased to elicit the same degree of response. Guilt is only one of the many feelings that people in our society have a diminished capacity to experience.

Contemporary theology has also played a role in undermining guilt feelings. One of the enduring theological shifts in this century is from images of God as a forbidding judge toward images of God as love. While this shift has been a positive one on the whole--and certainly more clearly represents the message of Jesus about who God is--it has also carried with it some unfortunate misinterpretations.

It simply is not true that the most caring parents, teachers, or bosses are the most permissive. Very frequently the most demanding are the most caring. And so it is with God. Because God loves us and is willing to endlessly forgive us is not evidence that God does not want us to feel guilt.

At the center of Jesus' presentation of the Father is compassion--the endless compassion God has for humans and demands that humans have for one another. Compassion, like guilt, is a feeling. The Way that Jesus left us demands not only feeling but also effective action. We are called to act out in the most effective manner possible our compassion for others. The parables Jesus told were to induce guilt in the consciences of audiences not accustomed to compassion as the criterion of righteousness.

The parables of Lazarus and Dives, the good Samaritan, and the prodigal son induce guilt--guilt in those who identified with Dives or the brother of the prodigal son; guilt in those who justified the priest and the Levite in passing by the robbery victim. Jesus told these parables to encourage the kind of compassion demonstrated by the father of the prodigal son and by the good Samaritan--that compassion implied blame for those who refused to show compassion and induced guilt in hearers who had sided with them.

Notice that the sinners in the parables do not feel guilt. The sinners who are condemned--Dives, the prodigal's brother, the priest, and the Levite--either implicitly or explicitly do not feel guilty and condemned. Rather, they are condemned because they do not feel any guilt feelings that could have led them to the spiritual conversion associated with compassion. Guilt is felt by those whose consciences are not dead, by those who can still be saved.

In a well-formed conscience guilt feelings are the warning bells that call us to repentance and conversion. Of course guilt feelings do not always signal that one has done wrong. A badly or incompletely formed conscience often produces guilt feelings that are inappropriate, as when a child who has been taught to love and obey parents feels guilt for hating or reporting an abusive parent or when a father feels guilty for not being able to support his family due to a layoff. If persons feel guilt when they shouldn't, they need to retrain their consciences with regard to some moral truths.

But sometimes guilt feelings can be an appropriate initial response even in the absence of wrongdoing because they cause us to critically reflect on our actions and clarify for ourselves our moral values. For example, when a police officer or a soldier kills in the line of duty, his or her conscience should be aroused. We wouldn't want to be policed by people who could kill without feelings of moral unease. Yet guilt feelings are only the beginning, not the end, of the activity of conscience.

When we feel guilt because we are the cause of injury or suffering to others, we need to work through our feelings and ask ourselves how responsible we are, what we could have done differently, if we could have foreseen the injury, and whether the consequences of choosing another action would have had better or worse consequences to others. It is by going through this process, which is triggered by guilt feelings, that over time we form more reliable, responsible consciences.

Don't be afraid of the dark

The numbing of our capacity to feel guilt has implications for our spiritual as well as our moral lives. When great saints and mystics in the Christian tradition insisted again and again that the ways of the Lord are mysterious, they meant that God works not only in simple ways but also through complex, impersonal processes. Often a long, dark night of the soul is the door through which we find the Promised Land, the living water, the encounter with God.

The dark night of the soul takes many forms: a solitary voyage across an endless sea, a barefoot trip across barren desert sands, an impossible ascent to the top of an invisible mountain peak. The causes of the dark night are equally varied. For some, the dark night begins as part of a voluntary quest for meaning in life; for others it is the only path available in the face of devastating catastrophes. Guilt can be one guide to the depths of the dark night, and exposure to seemingly infinite evil is another guide.

Some persons who embark on the journey through the dark night of the soul never arrive at the other side--they are permanently lost to despair, suicide, or various forms of mental illness. Of course, not all mental illness, suicide, or despair should be attributed to spiritual journeying. But it does seem to me that there may be some connection between the tremendous extent of depression in our society, especially among the young, and therapeutic religion's dismissal of both guilt and the process of the spiritual journey.

Too often the effect of therapeutic religion in our lives is to protect us from the long dark night of the soul, from guilt within the process of conscience development, and from the agony of knowing ourselves as finite, weak, and sinful. But if we have been protected from guilt, then we have been protected also from knowledge of our sins. And if we have been protected from knowledge of our sins, what need have we of justification and salvation, of conversion and the Reign of God, of Jesus the Savior?

Just as guilt feelings are necessary in the formation of a healthy moral conscience and habits of virtue, so experience of both our distance from God and the attraction to God, which is so basic a part of our human nature, is necessary if we are to orient our lives toward communion with our Creator God.

When we allow therapeutic religion to talk us out of human guilt and sin, we surrender the entire conception of the spiritual journey, which includes the process of growth and discovery, the identity of the Spirit as our (sometimes invisible) guide on the journey, as well as the journey's goal of communion with our Creator. If I'm O.K. and you're O.K., why would we need to journey anywhere, discover anything, seek Anyone?


This article first appeared in U.S. Catholic magazine and is reprinted here by permission of the author and U.S. Catholic. For more helpful articles from U.S.Catholic, visit their web site at

Published January 1, 1995.