Goodness and Guilt on the Dark Edge of Life

I’m thinking about guilt as a driving force of religion.

If you treat somebody badly, and they later die before you have a chance to apologize or correct your action, you have no way to make it right with them. If you’re religious, though, you can regain balance both through the ceremonial forgiveness your religion offers and through the “knowledge” that you will either see them again and have the chance to make it right, or that they’re alive-after-death and able to see you, hear you, as you make amends.

This is powerful motivation to embrace the god-and-afterlife model.

If you don’t have that sort of religion, you’re left with the pain of the guilt. Atheism would appear to be a poor substitute in this area of life, as it has no set mechanism for relieving or lessening guilt.

But here’s the thing: What if you’re not supposed to be relieved of certain kinds of guilt? What if you’re supposed to feel it, to bear it, for the rest of your life? What if this is one of the things that helps you be a good person, and a grownup?

If religion relieves guilt for an act you really did, it sort of opens up the possibility that you might do it again, doesn’t it? After all, if the bar against the act – the guilt – is lowered, the pain of the thing lessens and the price of doing it again is likewise lowered.

But if the pain and guilt stays with you, you have an ever-fresh reminder that you never want to do THAT again. You’ll also want to strongly encourage others not to do it.

I suspect this idea will offend those who think forgiveness is possible – and necessary! – for every act. But I don’t think it is. Some things really are unforgivable, it seems to me.

The things done to you by others can often be easily forgiven. But the things you’ve done to others, even when the other person forgives you, it may be that you can never completely forgive yourself. You carry the memory of the act with you in the form of a constantly-available melancholy, something that never goes away, but that strengthens you and drives you to greater goodness.

One part of that strength is the understanding you grow into about how much you really can bear. Indoctrinated with the idea of anguish too great to weather,  pain that requires godly absolution, we imagine ourselves as fragile and faint. But instead we are towers of strength and steadiness, able to take on more than we ever imagine.

REAL absolution is this: Carrying the pain inside indefinitely, not to simply feel it, but to act on it in daily life, making yourself better and more compassionate through the possession of your own inner guide to human fallibility.

In the adulthood of the human race – still to come, it seems to me – we will finally know this. It will be a part of our very society, so common a bit of knowledge that even adolescents are aware of it and guided by it.

I know the idea of never-receding pain will bring anguish to those currently dealing with the deaths of loved ones. But many of us are not at that point, and they deserve to hear that there is this one more good reason for treating people well – that you may well suffer for it for the rest of your life if you don’t.

On the other hand, coming to understand that we’re all stronger than we know, I don’t think that can’t help but be a bracing realization. Rather than being stuck with nothing more than “This thing hurts like hell every time I think of it,” we have the huge advantage of knowing “I can bear this. Forever if I need to. Because that’s what good people do.”


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