The word “guilt” is used as the fact of having committed a specific offense or crime, or the feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation. We’d think that the fact and the feeling would go together but this isn’t necessarily so. We’ve seen court photos of convicted criminals who show a complete lack of remorse for what they’ve done, and we know people who obsess over something that happened in the past that they just can’t seem to heal their minds from. Sometimes they’ve even been told that they are forgiven, or pardoned for their mistake.
It’s the eternal self-punishing kind of guilt that can cause psychological or physiological problems. That’s what this article is meant to help you with. Back in the 80s I was speaking about this very thing and how research was showing that self-forgiveness was helping people cure their cancer. After the talk, a gentleman came to me and said that he had prostate cancer. He explained that in a war he had killed a 14-year-old girl, and he couldn’t forgive himself for it. It was literally killing him.
He needed a higher power kind of help. We prayed together. I knew that God could forgive him, and he leaned on my faith until he accepted it for himself. We prayed for the soul of the girl. He apologized to her and sent her his love and blessings. He healed.
What is the usefulness of guilt except to let you know that you’ve made a mistake, and need to turn it around? That’s the challenge, to recognize the mistake and make it right.
I found a great article online that discussed the origins of guilt, how to learn from it, and the futility of keeping it. The author states, “Feeling guilty about something only keeps you focused in the past, and while it may result in short-term behavioral changes, it very rarely has any long-term beneficial effects. Guilt does not explain to me why I may have done something, nor does it teach me lessons from that experience.”
We have to be honest and dig deeper. I also offered five steps that one can take to resolve guilt:
1. “Face and accept the full reality of what you have done, without disowning or avoiding it.
2. Understand why you did what you did.
3. If other people are involved, tell them that you understand the harm you have caused them and the consequences of your actions.
4. Take any and all actions available to minimize or resolve the harm you have caused.
5. Make a commitment to yourself to behave differently in the future.
Completing these five steps turns what was a mistake into pure gold. You are no longer the person who would make such a mistake, and can even help others when they make the same mistake you did.
Regarding step 1 Christians may find some solace in, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” — 1 John 1:9 If you look up confess in the dictionary it means to admit or state that one is at fault for something. Sometimes we don’t know how to “undo” what we’ve done wrong, but a higher power does. It’s our job to trust that we will know what to do to make things right, and accept that we are forgiven.
Consider #2. What was the motivation for your action? What were you trying to accomplish by it that you afterwards regretted? This is really important. Many of us occasionally act on “automatic pilot”, and do things without an understanding of why we are doing it.
Tom Carpenter, author of “The Miracle of Real Forgiveness: Freeing us to Love,” repeatedly teaches that what people really want underneath everything is to love and be loved, and see themselves as lovable and loving.
Being part of a group, is often a substitute for feeling loved by a specific person, or being part of a family. These groups often demand a certain dress codes, behaviors and thinking which really aren’t in alignment with our own, but we just go with it because the need to feel loved is so strong. Some people try to substitute approval for love. And the internet is full of stories of successful corporate executives who ditched the bells and whistles for a chance to be with family or a community in a less prestigious setting.
The point is that group pressure can cause us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. Instead, choosing an “ideal” in our minds to live by can become a focus for what we want, it helps make every decision easier to make. As we evolve to our perfection, the ideals may change too. Some very common ones are peace, joy, love, kindness, wisdom, etc. I use love. When I make decisions I choose the ways that would bring more love to me and others as much as possible. Some ask “What would Jesus, Buddha, Moses or Allah do?” depending on their faith.
Numbers three and four are reflected in steps #8 and #9 In the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, #8 is, “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amend to them all. And #9, is: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them.” Telling a person you’re sorry for what you did is a good start. Then ask them how they were affected by what you did. Listen carefully and don’t judge them, thinking that they should have been able to handle it. Listen to how you harmed them, and learn from it.
Ask them how you can make it right. Don’t assume anything. I’ve done mediations, and it’s surprising what will make another person feel right again. It may be less than you thought or more than you think you can do. Work out a way that you can do a little at a time. Yes it is embarrassing to admit that we were wrong, but in time it is more embarrassing to our character not to understand that hurting another actually hurts many. As the South African native culture knows, “If I diminish you, I diminish myself.”
#5. If we keep a loving attitude when we repair the harm, we will feel a personal blessing. We are acting with the flow of goodness. We will be affected. We will be changed for the better, and possibly not even be tempted to act the way we did before. The guilt will be gone, unless our egos brings it back to hurt ourselves again. It probably will try. Know your bigger self, and let it tell your littler self that you’ve dealt with it, and have changed your life around.
If anyone needs a forgiveness boost right now, either to forgive yourself or to forgive another, I invite you to the Friends of Kamalani and Lydgate Park’s annual Earth Day event this Saturday, April 18, from 7:30 a.m. till noon. Sign in and have a continental breakfast at the big pavilion.
There are several tasks one can choose from. At the very north end of the park we’ll be cleaning Hau’ola, Wailua’s Place of Refuge. Hawaiians recognized spirit in all of life. When a person broke a law, or kapu, the penalty could be as severe as death unless you could escape and reach a place of refuge.
There you would be greeted by the priest/kahuna, and given tasks to do until the kahuna received a sign that it was time for you to be pardoned, and freed from the guilt of the broken kapu. Once you left the Place of Refuge, you were absolutely forgiven, and no one could hold you accountable for that action ever again.
Other tasks offered this Saturday are cleaning of the beach and park, building new picnic tables and benches, cutting down overgrown vegetation by the bike path, measuring trees planted by the soccer fields, and repair work of specific playground equipment. Bring work gloves, closed toed shoes, and perhaps long pants and sleeves if you are willing to get into the tough stuff. Also bring sun screen and water bottles. If you have pruners or other tools for cleaning the land, please bring them with your name on them. Water and snacks will be provided throughout the morning, and then we’ll feast together with music and fun at 11:30 thanks to our generous restaurant, and retail benefactors.
The Hindus believe that you can work off negative karma with service. So do most courts in the United States. It’s called community service. If you need to “do” something to feel better volunteer somewhere, and give back to the community. Prolonged guilt isn’t good for you or the people around you. Just remember that God is willing to forgive us as soon as we ask sincerely.
Hale Opio Kauai convened a support group of adults in our Kauai community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Please email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Annaleah Atkinson at www.haleopio.org