Written by Joe G. Santos
There are very few people who can say they have never felt guilt or shame in their lives. Guilt is a feeling that permeates many aspects of the current paradigm and has likely touched previous ones. From the time we were children, whether our parents knew it or not, the feeling of shame towards any sort of perceived misbehavior was encouraged with the narrative that a little bit of guilt makes us good people, but how accurate is that statement? Are guilt and shame a necessary aspect of the human experience?
The first instinct for many reading this is to think that some guilt is necessary to make the world run smoothly. How could a criminal absolve themselves of their crimes if not by feeling guilt and shame for what they have done? That analogy right away invites us to analyze the current state of our penalty system. Perhaps by understanding the guilt spectrum's extremes, we can conclude how to solve our personal issues. To dive deep into that concept, we have to familiarise ourselves with the idea of recidivism.
Recidivism is the act of revisiting negative behavior that proved itself to be detrimental to the actioner. We have all been victims of recidivist behavior. It synthesizes through all of our addictions: sugar, media, sex, drugs, luxury, playing the victim, etc. Peculiarly, the readily available information on our addictions' adverse social effects is often insufficient to stop such behavioral patterns. Knowing that a question arises:
If guilt makes it hard for someone to quit sugar, sex, drugs, etc., how hard must it be for a criminal to abandon a life of crime?
At face value, a rebuttal to that comparison would be that being incarcerated would bring far greater suffering to somebody. While that may be true to overcome the problems we have regarding growth, we ought to have a more profound understanding of it. What is the source of that suffering? Everything points to shame.
From the minute the offender is presented to the jury, a quest to finding guilt begins. If the person is found guilty, the current system seeks to shame them for however long the judge deems fair by stripping them of their humanity and rights. While this text does not seek to abolish penalizing people for their wrongdoings, it attempts to take a look at why it is so likely that many of the people who undergo punishment have a hard time evolving, and if there is a better alternative to that form of discipline.
In a report by the US Department of Justice looking at the recidivism rates in a nine-year follow-up period, 83% of state prisoners ended up being arrested again at least once after their release. Looking at those numbers, one can only assume that there is an apparent flaw in the system. The current paradigm's nucleus focuses far too much on chastising and humiliating offenders and much less on education and rehabilitation. That approach makes it virtually impossible for the individual to learn how, where, and why they did wrong. Shame integrates with the individual's ego and harbors a parasitic relationship; it seeks the sufferer to identify with it, not with who they are. With the embarrassment and pain caused by the superimposition of a false self-image, they identify with being a criminal and nothing else.
The Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti speaks about the relationship between guilt and ego. Here's a quick summary of his teaching:
To solve guilt, you must not look at the ideal, but the reality. By looking at the truth, you can then shape it to a new one.
In the case of the criminal, the reality is the fact that they are an individual who has committed a crime, and the ideal would be for them to be a law-abiding citizen. The problem here (when boiled down to its very essence) is not the fact that they have committed a crime, but that an expectation failed completion. Therefore the individual is shamed by the same society that had once nurtured them, causing a great sense of abandonment and loneliness. Applying Krishnamurti's teachings, by understanding the reality that the criminal most likely had a reason for their actions, we can start the healing process by looking at what that cause is, teaching the criminals themselves how to neutralize it. Yet, we may also understand that applying that level of empathy on a global scale requires an immense amount of labor and acceptance from, quite literally, all of us currently alive on planet Earth. The effort begins with you.
The first step to helping others is always to help oneself first. As much as there are people in the world challenged with an unshakable sense of shame, no one can come to their aid without first overcoming their own personal guilt. When we find ourselves trapped in that sort of mentality, it is challenging to be aware that we are experiencing it. If you are reading this, you have already made it halfway there.
If we seek to evolve, the main ingredient needed is the awareness that action needs to be taken. As aforementioned, it is infrequent that today's average person has not dealt with or is not dealing with shame. Without a doubt, some have a more toxic relationship with these emotions than others. However, blessed with the gift of awareness, to inspire change, you simply have to act as an example for those not yet aware.
As guided by the current rhetoric, many people see guilt as a motivational force prompting them to be better. That approach may work sometimes, but if not carefully tended to, it can turn into a harmful coping mechanism, backfiring and generating fatigue and malaise instead. A much more healthy way of dealing with your motivation is through humility.
Humility and guilt are two sides of the same emotional coin. Still, we need a distinction between them if we are to move forward. Humility stems from an understanding that no person can be better than the next, while guilt is the opposite and creates a false sense of hierarchical exclusion. An excellent example of how these two emotions prevail in our current days is through our relationship with the planet that houses us. Climate change and pollution present themselves as direct consequences of our collective choices. A tweet by @legitwidget broadly illustrates the perspective of many in regards to these situations.
Without questioning their tweet's accuracy, we must pay close attention to how we are addressing these pressing topics. As much as we need to recognize our blame, we must not dwell too much on the game of pointing fingers. That style of communication cultivates a great deal of shame that paralyzes a substantial amount of people. While we all have contributed to climate change, that perspective is limiting when you understand the truth that the great majority of people do not and did not want to contribute to the devastation caused by the effects of their still standing, unsustainable practices. Looking at these issues through the lens of humility, we understand that we are simultaneously accomplices and victims of the crimes against Earth. Like the criminal, a lot of our recidivist actions come from a place of miseducation. Humility invites us to understand that we do not know enough, but that the answers are available, and by making a collective effort, we can turn the tables on anything that makes us feel guilty.
"Shame drives two big tapes: Never good enough, and if you can talk it out of that one: Who do you think you are?" - Brené Brown
The way we judge ourselves always spills over in the way we think of others. Judgment often stems from failed expectations of perfection. When dealing with any challenge, we still have to be open to failure. Failed projects are a great teacher, but that truth is often obscured by our mechanically curated depiction of people and situations in the media. It is effortless to lose motivation if things do not go the way you originally planned. Being prepared for failure should always be part of your plans; it transforms an amateur into a master. Pundits on any subject matter did not become experts because of all the things that they got right, but from the challenges and mistakes they overcame through their practice. If we allow ourselves to listen to the voice of shame, we will quickly start to feel like our goals are too distant from us. Some people may have the drive to push through those feelings and reach their peak (albeit through a lot of suffering and distress), but it is foolish to think that it is universal. Knowing we all make mistakes and that the most successful people are simply the people who have failed more puts us in an apprentice's shoes. A student mindset drives us to look for the lessons in our mistakes and prevents us from revisiting them. Recidivism is a pattern no longer.
Now, it is understandable that some mistakes have far more significant implications than others. One cannot compare a murderer to a person that did not recycle in their laziness. While both actions have wildly mismatched consequences, both stories are redeemable with compassion and humility at heart.
As per the law of physics, every action reacts. It is easier to stop an inattentive runner from hitting a wall than a drunk driver. Neither is impossible, but each requires a similar amount of the exerted force for chaos to be prevented. Our misbehavior is no different. Yet, we run into far more problematic moral implications when our actions' damage is unquantifiable or hard to surmise. Nevertheless, acts coming from a place of love weight far more than those of hate.
A look at Libby Phelps-Alvarez, an ex Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) member's redemption story, gives us a little insight into how we can forgive ourselves for our misactions. If you are unfamiliar with WBC, the congregation is famous for propagating hate speech against LGBTQIA+ people, differing faiths, and even US soldiers. Libby had attended many of the picketings organized by the church, hurting and oppressing countless people. Flash forward to today, Libby is now a member of the non-profit Planting Peace who's resource center is located across the street from WBC's church. Planting Peace's rainbow-colored center (namely the Equality House supporting LGBTQIA+ issues) directs its profits towards a national anti-bullying campaign. While Libby likely has not reached the specific people who were victims of her hate speech, her actions now help support others who have a similar experience to her victims. Her redemption story illustrates how we can regain our pride despite having done something wrong. We do not always have the chance to apologize for those we hurt directly or rebuild something we have broken. Still, with the discernment that we can do better, we find solutions that can bring light to obfuscate the darkness we once harbored. Even when forgiveness seems unreachable, "where there's a will, there's a way."
In the hope of not oversimplifying such a complex topic, acknowledging that the solution to overcoming guilt differs for each individual is necessary. Although humility is a critical factor in avoiding revisiting patterns, to forgive yourself for any action or thought that had been a source of shame, introspection is required. To leave unrealistic perfectionism behind, a personalized plan of action is the first step towards a life free of expectations. Take the heavy guilt imposed on your shoulders and make space for new, more nurturing emotions to come. The road of life is long and uneven; none of us should have to carry anything that turns a beautifully unpredictable journey into a burdensome odyssey.
Now, knowing humility prevails over guilt and how to make that perspective shift. Which of your "crimes" are you willing to forgive? Hopefully all.
This text was very challenging for me to write. I have seen guilt everywhere on social media ever since the spark of coronavirus. To make peace with my guilt and that of others required a lot of deep thinking. I could not have done that on my own. Ever since I joined Spirit Mysteries (SM), I have been overwhelmed with the amount of support I have received on understanding challenging topics like these and many. This text was a fruit from a long conversation I had in the SM Discord server with users childlike_hero, Harriet Wanda, and Amy Moonsong. I am sincerely grateful for their input and being part of such a welcoming and understanding community of such intelligent individuals. Thank you all, and thank you for reading.
About the author: Joe G. Santos
Writer, Thinker, and Visionary. Through writing, I aim to clarify the most pressing questions about human behavior and world issues, pointing to practical resolutions in an entertaining and accessible manner. You can find my work and contact me at https://www.joegwriting.com/.
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