Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Gift of Guilt - The Curse of It

Pictured is of course is Joran Van Der Sloot in his happier days, when he had maybe only killed one girl and wasn't facing life behind bars in a dirty Peruvian jail.

This posting isn't about him but the concept of guilt--both good and bad guilt. There have been comments made in the media, by experts, that Van Der Sloot seems to exhibit sociopathic behavior. I will make the assumption that he is guilty for killing both girls (as that is where the evidence is pointing) and I do believe that he probably is a sociopath.

Sociopaths, along with several other personality disorders (for reasons that are not clear) seem to have no conscience. Their brains (and we could get into a long debate about nature vs nurture) seem to be incapable of experiencing normal human characteristics such as empathy, compassion and guilt.

But of course guilt is a gift. Without guilt, we would all start to look like Joran. Our cruelties would be magnified many times over. I think God for the gift of guilt.

But the most difficult thing about guilt that it, as a sense or emotion, is vulnerable just like all other emotions in this broken world. Therefore, guilt is often misused and can be our down fall and albatross.

I was thinking about this issue for several reasons. Of course Joran’s face has been in the news of late every time you turn it on. I hear the chatter about sociopathic personalities. I just can’t relate. I feel so much empathy for the young Peruvian girl, and her family, that I just can’t imagine taking her life in cold blood for a billion dollars. I would much rather give my own (mostly spent) life in place of hers.

But then, I’ve had a rough week with my own personal guilt, which I do realize that it is the broken, destructive kind. I think the last catalyst in this thinking was Ester’s comment about comparisons . . . which are usually motivated by an unhealthy guilt.

I’ve done plenty of things in my life to be feel real guilt about. I have a lot of true flaws and sin. However, I’m also one of these people prone to false guilt. For example, if there was a guilt spectrum and on one extreme end were the sociopaths, on the other end are those, such as myself (and there are lot of us) who struggle with low self-esteem, social phobias and etc. We have a big guilt handle in the center of our foreheads (like a unicorn). People love to grab this handle to get us to do the things they want. Maybe the ring in a bull’s snout would be a better metaphor.

We are all like these guilt manipulators, some much worse than others. While this is played out in all aspects of life, I do think that within the church guilt manipulation finds a comfortable home. It is somewhat of a no-brainer to figure out why church life is so conducive to guilt manipulation.

I hear guilt manipulation language virtually every Sunday. Most preacher’s use it. Christian parents use it all the time. It is a way of life within the church. The pry bar of guilt is “Jesus.” With language like, “I love Jesus’ church. Therefore I support it whenever we have a program. It’s too bad that you do feel that way.” Or the Christian parent says to their child, “God is disappointed in you when you don’t do what mommy says.”

My guilt this week occurred completely outside of the church setting. I have nasty confrontations with patients virtually every day. Since I work in chronic pain, it is usually with patients who doctor-shop just to get more and more Oxycontin. I call them on it. They scream profanities and tell me over and over what a horrible person I am (this is part of drug-seeking-behavior). One almost destroyed the front of our clinic a few weeks ago. Now I’m not talking about patients who really have bad pain and want relief. Most of my patients are like that. But I do have many that could not care less about good treatment, but only wanting narcotics.

But, using the language of psychologists, I do “internalize” these verbal assaults. After such an encounter yesterday (and the patient was one of the worse drug abusers in the area) I woke up in the middle of the night with this strange hybrid of anger and guilt. The sharp words, which she said to me, make me really feel like a looser even though, on a rational level, I know better.

The last piece of the puzzle is again my latest book, The Way of All Flesh. It depicts the art form of Christian guilt manipulation at its best. A deeply devout couple (the father, a Victorian-era pastor and his pious wife, Christina) are much closer to Van Der Sloot—heartless, sociopathic end of the spectrum. They perform acts of extreme mental and emotional cruelty on their son Ernest under the disguise of righteousness.

But the hardest thing for us guilt-prone people is to see daylight between the false guilts and the genuine ones. I often have guilt over the things I post here. I can’t count the times I’ve made a post only to awaken in the middle of the night (guilt is always most acute in the middle of the night, both the good kind and the bad), and go and delete it. I have guilt about the photo I posted last time when Denise saw it and was disgusted and told me it was poor taste. I feel guilt when I share deeply personal things, as I have of late. I also feel a lot of guilt when these posts, as they often do, focus on myself.

But rather than being my own personal diary about nothing (to put it in George Costanzas’ words) I am really interested in the much bigger picture of human nature and how these things play out within Christendom.

This does also come back to a monistic view vs dualistic view. In the Christian dualistic view, the only things that are important are “spiritual.” Thus, if you feel guilt, it probably the Holy Spirit convicting you. The Dualists would never consider earthly matters such as personality traits, biology, genetics and etc.

I will rest my thoughts on this.


zane said...

Appreciate your thoughts. I tend to fall on the hyper-guilty end of the spectrum too. Whenever I have any kind of failing, spiritual or social or whatever, I tend to spend a lot of time beating myself up about it, and the churches I've been in have tended to look on guilt as unambiguously good and coming only from God. It took me a long time to understand that God doesn't what that, that spending all of your time dwelling on a past sin can be just as destructive as the sin itself was.

Recovering Alumni said...

Just wanted to encourage you that I love reading your blog. I don't think I've ever read anything here that you should feel guilty about. You are calling us all out on our lives of fakery and falsehood. That is nothing to feel bad about. As when pointing out any serious issue, the problem is not that we have to point it out - the problem is that its a problem in the first place. Does that make sense?

Keep writing, my friend!

MJ said...

I agree that a lot of us beat our selves up. I too use to think that all guilt was from God. I made a lot of decisions based on guilt or no guilt (when I interpreted normal fear about the choice as guilt)

I hope I'm pointing out real problems. It is hard that many people I know think that you should never say anything negative about anything. I think that's where my guilt comes from.

Johan said...

Another with a ring in his nose here ...

I struggled very hard with guilt delusions due to my seasonal affective disorder. Every winter from september up till march/april I would be constantly accusing myself. Every time i took a walk, every time I was on myself, these thoughts would come back ...l It is a kind of hell. I thought I was the worse person in the world sometimes. Luckily this depressive guilt disappeared when I started to use a daylightlamp.

But guilt can be very easily used to manipulate me. Low self esteem coupled with a fear of anger or disapproval (of authority figures, of whom God is the most authoritative), is a hard combination. I've come to see that Satan is the accuser of the brethren. As Dallas Willard once said (in Hearing God): God does not enter a discussion with us. He simply states. He speaks with authority. And we are free to listen.
So when I hear the accusative voices, starting the discussion in my head again, I choose not to listen to them (i don't always succeed).
And I have resolved to only listen to (internal) messages that are in accordance with the unconditional love of God. Voices in me that suggest that God does not love me, or that I'm not good enough, I won't listen to.
And when I realise some real guilt (I know there are things in my life that are not good) I bring those to God and repent (without a show of guilt or emotion, just state the truth).

This is one of the main reasons I struggle with going to church though, as I really don't need my guilt heightened by others. I can blame myself well enough thank you! I long for a comunity that's save. Or at least saver.


P.S. here in the Netherlands Joran van der Sloot is in the news too all the time for obvious reasons. We think he gives us a bad rep.

MJ said...

Wisely put Johan. I think that is why Joel Osteen is so popular here in the states is that he strikes a cord by avoiding guilt manipulation and keeps telling people that they are not crap after all. He has other issues though.

Eagle said...

As a result of being an evangelical I feel guilty about almost everything. Evangelicals certainly knew how to manipulate situations to their advantage.