We talk about some very sensitive issues at the Ruth Institute: sex, abortion, divorce. I have noticed that sometimes, peoples’ reactions are all out of proportion to what we actually said. Many times, I have wondered to myself, “What accounts for this extreme reaction?”
Without jumping to an overly broad conclusion, let me suggest that sometimes, the answer is A Guilty Conscience. The person is reacting, not to what I said, but to some deeper, more complicated feelings.
When I reflect on my own situation, I can definitely relate to this. A Guilty Conscience is almost intolerable. We humans desire to think well of ourselves. This fact of the human condition should be observable to anyone. When we do something that violates our own moral code, whatever that may be, we feel bad.
That bad feeling, I submit, could be the very thing that helps us do a course-correction. We change our behavior so we don’t have that bad feeling. That is how it works with the body, after all. We burn our fingers on the stove. We instantly pull back. We learn not to touch hot stoves.
But in the moral order, we are more complex. We do indeed withdraw from a moral wrong. But we do not necessarily do an automatic course-correction.
Sometimes, we withdraw by avoiding the topic altogether.
We medicate ourselves with substances, activities and busy-ness. We change the subject. And, always a favorite tactic: we blame someone else. We blame the person closest at hand, a family member for instance. We blame the person who told us that we had done something
wrong or hurtful.
There are a number of problems with this strategy. 1. It isn’t the truth. 2. We keep doing mean and stupid stuff and 3. We are impossible to live with.
So let me make a suggestion to try out, the next time you feel a tinge of guilt.
Set a timer for five minutes. Sit with the feeling for five minutes. Do not medicate the feeling away with a substance or an activity. Do not lash out at the person or situation that prompted the guilty feeling. Do not make excuses or offer explanations. Do not change the subject. Do not attempt to reassure yourself with the idea that there is no such thing as right and wrong. If you really believed that, you would not be pricked by the idea that you might have done something wrong. You could swat it away like a fly, an annoyance, nothing more.
While you are sitting there with the thought that you have done something against your own value system, allow yourself to feel your imperfection, your incompleteness, your finiteness. And just repeat this phrase. “I am not perfect. I am not God. God is God. Being imperfect is part of being human. I am perfectly imperfect.”
See if these affirmations help you address the underlying problem for which you feel guilty. Five minutes. That’s all I’m asking.
When the timer goes off, go ahead and do whatever you think best.
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