Productive Guilt

The number one reaction to tragedies is guilt.  It can be selfish, i.e. should I feel joyous when tragedy is unfolding elsewhere, or a positive realization, i.e. look at [Haiti, Sudan, etc]! Haiti has been the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Its poverty was what caused the catastrophic death toll and casualties.  Is that not a bigger tragedy than a natural earthquake?

One of the best definitions I have read is from a Sonoma State University study:  “guilt is a sense that our actions express much less than our full being. [Conversely], guilt is also the appreciation that what we do matters.”

The bright side of guilt is argued by Dr. Roy Baumeister in “Psychological Bulletin” as reported in this article in Psychology Today who states guilt can act as a social glue, motivate us to improve relationships. It stems from empathy and can bring us closer to others.  Images from an earthquake rather than the everyday poverty of Haiti has productive results, i.e. hundreds of parents rush to adopt Haitian orphans after watching their plight on the news.

The anxiety inducing aspect of guilt is that though it may be telling us something important, it isn’t always rational says Dr. John Grohol.  Feeling too much guilt unto itself is a disservice to both you and the situation.  For one, guilt is unproductive.  If a situation or person needs assistance, simply feeling bad doesn’t mean one is a better or more compassionate person. Guilt means nothing until there is action.

Like any other positive or negative emotion — or in guilt’s case, both — one can wallow in guilt like a safety blanket. “God, I feel so guilty” is followed by reassurances from well-meaning supporters and the cycle continues — including the behavior that caused in the guilt in the first place.  In terms of personal or spiritual development, there’s no room to grow when one’s attached to guilt.  Guilt is one of the strongest forms of attachment in yoga.

Yogic philosophy and our ancestral way of living already addressed guilt.  Some religious practices have cashed in on this powerful force.  In yoga, and most spiritual practices, guilt over one’s own action can be remedied with forgiveness and practicing dharma, meaning ethical actions.  The commandments are not just to bind you in but also protect you — from overwhelming guilt and despair.  Practice non-attachment to the result, do as you should, and your words and actions will never give rise to guilt.

Guilt over the state of the world is inevitable for everytime one has, another does not have. For this reason, in ancient India and many parts of the world, to give alms was an incorporated part of life. One of the five pillars of Islam is charity.  It isn’t just to be a “good” person; it’s selfish at its core because it purifies the psyche, it makes you aware of your interconnectedness with others.  But in today’s modern age, we have none of that giving rise to anxieties.  Sally Kempton has an extensive article about it in “Goodbye Guilt.”

In Haiti, say good-bye to your own guilt with giving as per your resources to one of many charities listed on Charity Navigator here.


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