Good healthy guilt vs snivelling self pity

Life would have been bliss when I was a kid if Mother had subscribed to the now fashionable notion that making another person feel “guilty” is the greatest crime a human being can commit.

But mother belonged to what she called “The Pull Yourself Together School of Psychiatry.” It espoused a straight and uncomplicated philosophy: Trangressors admitted their guilt, took their punishment without whining or bleating, and all was forgotten.

Today, by contrast, folks might be forgiven for thinking that the “right” not to feel “guilty” is enshrined somewhere in the Constitution or, perhaps, engraven on the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, the notion that it is evil to make other people feel guilty seems to be accepted as a self-evident truth.

Actually, the fact that this belief has gained such wide currency shouldn’t be wholly surprising. Psychiatry, in the popular imagination at least, seems to be a science largely dedicated to eradicating all feelings of guilt.

“Pop” psychological theory is cited to excuse behavior that throughout history has been regarded abhorrent, and even criminal, on the grounds that its practitioners “can’t help it.”

It’s only to be expected that Christianity should encounter open hostility in a society wedded to such beliefs. After all, the Christian Gospel teaches absolute truths about God and the manner in which he has commanded people to behave—both towards himself and their fellow human beings.

Christians who disobey God’s commandments and flout his laws, quite rightly, tend to feel guilty about it. Feeling guilty is what repentance is all about. What’s more, without repentance, there can be no true freedom from guilt. Repentance, you see, is a prerequisite for absolution—God’s forgiveness.

There is, of course, a vast difference between reasonable feelings of guilt—about things done and left undone for which we are personally responsible—and unreasonable or irrational feelings of guilt.

Clearly, many people harbor feelings of guilt that are quite irrational. Such feelings are unhealthy and the unfortunates who suffer from them need help in overcoming them. But most of us feel guilty with very good reason. We have, indeed, done things we oughtn’t to have done and left undone things we ought to have done.

Such feelings of guilt are healthy. They are good for the soul and, ultimately, good for society. When people mend their ways, their lives tend to improve—both at home and in their communities.

But while a reasonable sense of guilt is an important motivational force for social advance, the corollary is that unreasonable and irrational feelings of guilt undermine social progress: namely, policies that reward the undeserving discredit worthy efforts to assist those in genuine need.

The trouble could be that today we tend to overlook something Mother’s “Pull Yourself Together School of Psychiatry” regarded as far more unhealthy than guilt. Mother never let us dwell on the wrongs that had been done us or to nurse our grievances.

Nothing, she said, was more crippling than a sense of self-pity. It might not be popular to say so, but, surely, encouraging victims to embrace a sense of victimhood serves only to victimize them all over again. GPH✠

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