Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Guilt is good

Remember Gordon Gekko?

He's just a fictional character from the film, Wall Street, so I don't have to feel guilty for very nearly plagiarizing his dialogue for the title of this post. I probably should feel guilty for using a title which directly contradicts a statement I made in yesterday's rant. But it just seemed so attention-getting and punchy; I couldn't resist.

Anyway, when we last saw Our Hero, he was getting ready to talk about how some emotions seem to fall out of favor amongst the general populace - and to mount his case in defense of guilt. Despite today's title, I stick by my statement yesterday that viewing "emotions as good or bad is almost meaningless." I think many people view emotions as bad if they seem out of control, unjustified or unreasonable. Anger, pride and hatred are sometimes described with those words - but so could grief, love or joy. Is a person consumed with anger that is out of control worse off than the person consumed by grief? If my pride in someone has caused me to lose sight of the real person, would I be better off if I was blinded by love?

Our feelings should, I think, be a reflection of our reality - not a filter through which we see ourselves and our circumstances. If the things that we have desired and hoped for happen, shouldn't we be happy or content? And if we get sick or hurt, are we wrong to feel sad or frustrated? Clearly, the makeup of our lives and our emotions are far more complex; but the principle remains that our feelings make sense as a reaction to the main action - of what is going on in our lives.

So - what about guilt?

Here's an emotion that has been getting a bad rep ever since the rebellion of the Sixties swept away the repression of the Fifties*. Once people, on a large scale, began embracing that idea that they weren't going to go to Hell for wearing a skirt their parent's though was too short, or smoking a joint, or having sex before getting married, or getting divorced - the conclusion was not far behind that previous generations had been using guilt as a tool to manipulate them. And, in so far as that was true, people were right to reject the guilt being imposed upon them externally. But some folks have, I think, taken this idea too far - and taken a stance that all guilt is useless, a waste of time, a trick to hold people back from realizing their full potential.

But I say: To reject guilt outright, is to reject the conscience. And that would be a monumental mistake. For what is real guilt - not guilt imposed externally, not someone trying to make you feel bad - what is real guilt except your conscience sending an alert that you have violated your own sense of right and wrong?

Like any other emotion, guilt that is simply dwelt upon or wallowed in serves no particular purpose, brings no benefit, and may be harmful to the overexposed. But when guilt reminds us of the right thing to do, moves us to change our behaviors where they are not in line with our own moral code, and helps us to live in a way that let's us sleep well at night...

Well, I'm all for that.

Take care.

*I know repression goes back before the Fifties - but I'm not that old.

Detroit vs. Columbus - Wings lead the best of seven series, 3 - 0


Middle Aged Woman said...

I think this whole thing was an excuse to get to watch your favorite scenes from Broadway Danny Rose again.

Jim Styro said...

Who needs an excuse? [What a great movie!]

The Mister said...

Nicely put.

Jim Styro said...

Thanks, Mister.