It’s OK to Feel Guilty

I don’t imagine anybody likes to feel guilty.  Owning up to our shortcomings is painful.  That’s why we get defensive when criticized, or blame others when we’re accused.  I can’t sleep for days when I know I’ve hurt someone.  I cry.  Taking responsibility for our faults is not only emotionally difficult, but it can reek havoc on one’s reputation or career in a litigious society such as ours.  No one likes to accept blame. Yet, accepting the real consequences and wrongful outcomes of our actions is necessary.  It’s a prerequisite for forgiveness, for healing of relationships, for transformation, for growth, for health.

Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeaux, was good at articulating this in his press conference a day after his speech at the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.  He said, “I think it is natural for people to feel guilty for mistakes of past generations, but I don’t think we should be wallowing in it or thinking that just feeling guilty is enough. Let’s put that energy and that desire towards fixing things, towards making sure that we move forward in a constructive and productive relationship.”  The healthy response to an acknowledgement of our societal “sins” is to do our best to fix things.

Here, as he was naming how Canadians had trivialized and marginalized the native, indigenous, people of Canada, Trudeaux admitted “I feel guilty.”  The underlying message is “I AM guilty.”  We are all guilty, of course. Whether it’s the sins of past generations or the “little white lie” of last week, we are all responsible and blameworthy of both intentional and unintentional maliciousness.  Yet, we deny our culpability and are, more often than not, hesitant to take take responsibility.

It’s ok to feel guilty as well as outraged when there’s a shooting at a community college, or when a white police officer shoots an unarmed youth who is black.  It’s ok to feel guilty for our people’s exploitation of undeveloped nations for our own economic gain.  Or the massive incarceration of mostly black men for non-violent offenses.  It’s ok to name the evil of slavery that is embodied by the emblem of the confederacy.  It’s ok to admit we’ve made mistakes, and that we continue to make mistakes.

Isn’t that the basis for our annual ritual of making new year resolutions ?  That we acknowledge where our lives need improvement … that is, where we’ve fallen short … and make a conscious, even public, effort to make it right?  Or the Jewish practice at Yom Kippur of asking forgiveness from those who we’ve wronged in the past year … or the weekly liturgical practice in our own pews of the confession of sins.  These are habitual practices which accept blame and look to a new way forward.  The assurance of God’s forgiveness gives us the courage to face not only our human limitations, but our intentional and unintentional actions that have brought harm on others.  We have to name these things in order to fully comprehend the newness, the life, that comes in Christ.

We admit our sins so that God renews us … what’s required for this?  It’s not a promise never to do it again, because that’s impossible.  But it is a promise to continue to make it right.  Out of the grace we experience in Christ we have the power to make it right.  We can change, we can reform, we can confess, we can transform.

Parker Palmer wrote an article published at On Being in which he talks about his five new year revolutions. That’s right, revolutions, not resolutions.  A resolution gets its power from stasis … from standing firm.  In the best contexts I think of Martin Luther’s words “Here I stand.”  In the worst cases, I think of the north and south-going Zaxes in the Dr. Seuss story resolved to stay put.  We resolve to eat better or exercise more, but we all know that typical new year resolutions rarely make it through January. A revolution, on the other hand, is fundamentally dynamic.  It’s about change … great change.  And great change starts with naming both the faulty reality that we need to let go of (no matter how painful) and the hopeful possibility of what needs to be.

Palmer’s revolutions relate to xenophobia, white privilege, public education, gun violence, and the wealth gap.  I make these revolutions, too, this year.  No doubt all of these require a willingness to feel guilty.  I will. It’s ok, though.  It’s not ok for me to avoid these revolutions because I’m afraid to feel guilty.  It’s also not ok for me to wallow in the guilt or become mired in it (which I am often prone to do).  Instead, I invite you to join me in feeling guilty and then allow the guilt to inform us, to motivate us, to move us … so that we can begin to make it right.

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