Real guilt is an awful feeling one gets after a moral failure. Unless you are perfect or a perfect sociopath, you’ve experienced it too.Either the feeler did something knowingly and willingly wrong, or he knowingly and willingly failed to do something right. In either case an internal conviction rises up like a physical nausea or a psychological gag of self disgust. The self loathing builds until something is done to correct or numb the guilt. Assuage (lessen) or expiate (atone), there’s a pair of words that get after guilt. Addicts favor assuaging guilt with a substance, but that’s a different post for another time. Atonement is the ticket for undoing the guilt inducing act. Here’s the problem, though, folks: false guilt feels the same as real guilt. It masquerades as real, but false guilt is built on false assumptions and incorrect beliefs. As long as the false beliefs persist, so does the false guilt. Truth cuts down that weed, however. No, let’s say eradicates the weed of false guilt. Let me give a personal example.
Decades ago I lived around a bendy hill from a pig farm in the sleepy hamlet of Five Forks. My wife and I owned Coco the sheltie collie. Coco ran loose most of the time. We didn’t tie him up nor did we have a fence. It was a long way between neighbors, so it wasn’t usually a problem, unless you were the guy in the black Fiat who ran over Coco and rolled him up like a prison cigarette one summer day. Oh, but when the weather turns, there is opportunity for foul play of all sorts. One Sunday afternoon during a February blizzard, I opened the back door of our farmhouse to let Coco in from the blowing snow. In his mouth was a frozen dead piglet.
“Oh, no!! Coco has killed a piglet”, I exclaimed.
My wife asked me, “What are you going to do?”
I picked up my parka and gloves, my scarf and my checkbook. “I’m going to see what a baby pig goes for these days”, and off I trudged toward Farmer Hade’s pig farm. Though his acreage lay directly off our back porch, a stream and a wire fence prevented me from easily crossing over onto his property. I had to walk about a third of a mile by the road to get to his place. I imagined his two boys answering the door. I had them in school back then. Awkward. I wondered how dad would handle the demise of one of his many porkers. Should I pay per pound or a full $200 for a completely grown pig? Many uncomfortable thoughts blew across my brain like the cruel snowflakes that stung my cheeks.
I got to his driveway across from the barn where the 600 pigs were kept. It did not cross my mind how my dog had wedged his way into that wooden fortress. I had the proof: the frozen dead piglet in his choppers. I did not need an eye witness or video evidence. I walked up a few concrete steps and rang the door bell. Mr. Hade answered it promptly.
“What in the world are you doing out in this weather?” he shouted.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. My dog killed on of your pigs.”
He laughed at my dire statement. I wondered if it was the laugh of a crazy man who was on the edge of bankruptcy, one piglet away from disaster.
“Your dog didn’t kill any pig of mine”, he added. “Couldn’t. The barn is locked up tight and I got electric fencing at all the openings. They can’t get out and no critters can get in.”
“But my dog came home with a frozen piglet in his mouth”, I protested, wondering if I could get out for $50.
“He probably got one off the pile.”
“The P-P-P-PILE?” I stammered in the blizzard air.
“Yeah, when the sows roll over, they often crush one of their babies. We throw’m on the pile out back. That’s where he got it most likely.”
“Sorry to bother you, Mr. Hade. I’ll see the boys when school gets back to normal. Bye.”
I trudged home feeling a mixture of relief and stupidity. “The PILE??!! Unbelievable.” Still, the evidence was compelling. My dog did shoplift a dead piglet without permission after all. But the more I tried to convict myself of crimes against neighbor, property, and humanity, the less I could find to stick to me.
Stinking false guilt! It’s like tar on your skin waiting for the feathers of shame to stick to it, but the turpentine of truth can dissolve it in a few dabs. Sometimes just a few truth filled breaths will wipe away the stain of false guilt. For instance, the woman across from me spoke of her crippling guilt…
“I should have been there for my mom. She slipped off her diet again and wound up in the hospital with her diabetes.”
“And you drove eight hours one way to be with her, so I don’t get the guilt part.”
“See, I left my home town for college and then my master’s degree. There weren’t many opportunities back home. My family feels like I abandoned them.”
“Okay, but why the guilt instead of pride in your success?”
“My sister has always been jealous, but she would never work to change her circumstances. Lazy,really, like my dad. She lives around the corner from my folks now. They pay her bills to this day.”
“And why didn’t she take care of your mom’s health concerns?”
“She’s just the same. My dad too. They all eat what they want, as much as they want, whenever they want.”
“So theirs are self-inflicted wounds, yes?”
“I guess, but I’ve always felt it was my fault that they floundered. I should be there to rescue them somehow. I’m the only healthy one.”
“And your dad?”
“He sits and watches t.v. all day, every day.”
“So let me see if I have this correctly. Your family under-functions, ignores common health practices, and then calls you when one of them needs medical attention. Is that about right?”
“How’s the guilt?”
“Quickly turning in to anger actually.”
“Well how about that?”