Guilt is a powerful, positive force when it is directed at ourselves, and not at the faults of others. But it must be coupled with hope: with the belief that we can change, that we can overcome our faults. And most importantly, with the belief that our past mistakes can be erased by forgiveness. When we know we can be forgiven and that we can change, guilt is the force that propels us to higher levels of living and being.
Many of these generally illiterate, unskilled drop-outs from school show signs of a massive overdose of empty self-esteem and virtually think they are gods who can decide who lives and who dies, with no remorse for their crimes. Would they have seen things differently if they had learned to read well at an early age? At least one study has indicated that the primary predictor for later criminal behavior is reading ability as child, not genes or economic level. Of course, it's unfair to blame the schools for the acts of these criminals - but the failure of schools to teach these kids to read is certainly part of the problem. At the least, many schools are missing a critical opportunity to give kids real hope and real skills that would reduce the temptation to become a criminal.
Repeated sin, repeated crime, eventually leads to a deadening of the soul and a complete insensitivity or blindness to guilt, allowing even worse behavior to follow. But this is not how humans are designed to be. Once we are mature enough to grasp cause and effect, and to understand that those around us are people, too, the influence of the conscience sets in. No matter how banal the upbringing and education that a child receives, no matter how incompetent his or her parents, there is still an innate sense of human decency - our conscience - that cries out in pain when we knowingly do something that harms another. But this pain mechanism, like nerves themselves, can be deadened. The conscience can become seared and inactive, allowing brutes to go on to greater crimes without restraint.
Rather than being deadened, the gift of guilt needs to be cultivated. To be most helpful, it needs education - moral education - to let the individual understand the subtleties of right from wrong. This education must be nurtured by the home. It generally won't be nurtured in the schools, though schools commonly once taught children the basics of right from wrong. Now the schools have punted in this area. This hit home about six years ago when I sat next to a very articulate and educated principle of a large elementary school in California who was returning from an educational conference of some kind. She got my hopes up by speaking of her progressive efforts to bring values into the school, and even said that she was writing a book on the wonderful results. I asked how this was done, knowing that many schools were afraid to talk about values because of the paranoia about separation of church from state (a paranoia that in practice becomes the extermination of religious thought by the State). She enthusiastically told me of their open-minded approach in which they teach each child that he or she alone must create their own values, and that their values cannot be questioned. Progressive? Sorry, Ma'am, that's old news. That's what criminals, thugs, and dictators have been doing for centuries. And it's what schools have been doing for years in this country - teaching kids moral relativism, anything goes, create your own values (and thus be your own god).
Used to be that schools would teach kids that hurting others is wrong and that sexual morality was crucial (wait until marriage!). Now they show kids how to be immoral, provide the means to escape some of the natural consequences, even to the point of encouraging them to kill another innocent human being by abortion for their convenience. Values? They've been exterminated, along with 1.5 million unborn children a year. Moral miseducation is the name of the game. Parents, take back your children's souls and teach them right from wrong, that the gift of guilt might be cultivated and useful in their lives.
[A] unique gift from the religious traditions of the West has helped to preserve us from the static, self-satisfied, and sometimes arrogant [attitude] that has weakened other civilizations. That great gift is guilt. Guilt sends a message: "You can do better. You can improve yourself. You can improve your world." This questing religious spirit, resisting overall centralization, undermining unchallenged certainties, has characterized the West's triumph for the past thousand years.
Guilt, when properly acted upon, can lead to miraculous change. The Corinthian saints, whom Paul had chastised and called to repentance, felt pained with guilt. Their sorrow was "godly sorrow" that motivated them to change and improve with great zeal, as Paul recounts in 2 Cor. 7:8-11:
8 For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season.Indignation, fear, vehement desire, zeal, and revenge! All these emotions can be fueled in healthy directions by guilt. (The quest for revenge presumably was to avenge themselves, to clear their names of wrong, to seek restitution for their wrongs.)
9 Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing.
10 For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.
11 For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter.
10 And it came to pass that the Nephites began to repent of their iniquity, and began to cry even as had been prophesied by Samuel the prophet; for behold no man could keep that which was his own, for the thieves, and the robbers, and the murderers, and the magic art, and the witchcraft which was in the land.In the modern world, guilt is either something we seek to ignore or to project on anyone but our self (parents being a favorite target). This quest is a source of income for many counselors, psychiatrists, psychics, and therapists. And in the political left, we find vast reservoirs of guilt - guilt for our high standard of living, guilt for polluting the world, guilt for past sins of slavery, guilt for all the evils of society - continuously projected on other people ("society," "Corporate America," the upper class, whites, "the patriarchy," or Christians). Rather than being a motivator for change in the heart of an introspective person, it is a tool used not so much to improve the behavior of individuals as to transfer power into the hands of the accusers.
11 Thus there began to be a mourning and a lamentation in all the land because of these things, and more especially among the people of Nephi.
12 And it came to pass that when I, Mormon, saw their lamentation and their mourning and their sorrow before the Lord, my heart did begin to rejoice within me, knowing the mercies and the long-suffering of the Lord, therefore supposing that he would be merciful unto them that they would again become a righteous people.
13 But behold this my joy was vain, for their sorrowing was not unto repentance, because of the goodness of God; but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin.
14 And they did not come unto Jesus with broken hearts and contrite spirits, but they did curse God, and wish to die. Nevertheless they would struggle with the sword for their lives.
When personal guilt is lost or replaced with guilt projected on others, tragedy is sure to follow. At the personal level, there will be more foolish and destructive behavior. At the community level, more crime and suffering. At the national or international level, more power in the hands of tyrants - and senseless bloodshed inevitably follows.
A final option-maximizing strategy I want to mention is staying free from guilt or maintaining a clear conscience. It is impossible to feel guilty and be happy. I remember a number of years ago when one of our children was shooting his bow and arrows in the backyard. As parents, we had told him several times not to get his bow and arrows out unless we were in the mountains, especially when we were not at home. On this day he had some friends with him, and they started messing around. He got his fancy new bow out to show "the guys." He thought he was focusing on the target, but instead he shot an arrow over our fence, across the road, and right through our neighbor's garage door. This happened early in the day. He lived with the guilt until about 10:00 that night when he could stand it no longer. Finally he came into our bedroom crying and admitting what he had done. I immediately got out of bed and got dressed. Hand in hand we went to the neighbor's home, and my son told him what he had done. We offered to pay for a new garage door, which we did. Although our son still felt badly about doing something he was told not to do, he was a lot happier facing the consequences of his actions because he didn't have to harbor that guilt any longer. He knew that until he told his parents and the neighbor, inside himself he was a liar with a guilty conscience. I personally don't believe you can ever reach your potential, have freedom or peace of mind, or be happy if you are harboring guilt. The scriptures make it clear that we cannot live in sin and be happy.
Copyright © 2001. This snippet was written by Jeff Lindsay for JeffLindsay.com.