Guilt is Good

For most of January, I taught a cross-cultural psychology study-abroad course in northeastern Brazil. I was a last-minute substitute for the professor who had organized the trip but needed to back out. Goodbye Minnesota winter, hello Brazilian summer. So there I was, in Salvador the blackest city outside of Africa (it’s 89% black) leading 21 lily-white Midwestern college students on educational excursions. This racialized experience led to some interesting conversations about race -- or rather, conversations about conversations about race. You see, my students didn’t want to talk about race; they were afraid to. When I prodded them a bit, they declared that conversations about race were unfair to them because “everyone” just wanted to blame white people for the inequality in the world. The mere possibility of experiencing guilt was enough to make them want to steer clear of learning or talking about racial inequality and other forms of inequality.

Despite their discomfort, I challenged my study-abroad students to talk about inequality every single day that we were in Brazil. I brought it up all the time. I pointed out racial and economic disparities on the bus, at the museums, at the Monsanto plant, at the beaches, at the pousadas. I asked our guest lecturers to focus on inequality.  I asked the students to journal about it. It was inequality all day, all night, all the time. As a result, the students felt guilty…a lot. And that’s okay because guilt is good and necessary.[i]

Feeling-Guilty

Feeling-Guilty

ON GUILT AND INEQUALITY

Many of us want to think that true reconciliation can occur without anyone ever bearing the discomfort of guilt. But we only need to take one quick look at the bloody cross to know that that ain’t true. Nevertheless, conversations about inequality are often engineered to avoid making privileged people feel guilty.

Inequality exists because guilty people have produced societal systems that accommodate some people and alienate others. And inequality exists because guilty people continue to benefit from these unjust societal systems. In our unequal world, there are no privileged innocent bystanders. All privileged people participate in our unequal societal structure – some perpetuate it knowingly, some perpetuate it unknowingly, and others resist it as revolutionaries.  All who have ever perpetuated it knowingly or unknowingly are guilty. For them, experiencing guilt is a crucial part of the reconciliation journey.

ON USING GUILT

The trick is to use guilt rather than be used by shame. This is difficult because we often confuse guilt and shame. Both are moral emotions that involve feeling bad. But guilt is constructive; it focuses on an act or action that is wrong. Guilt says, "I did something wrong." On the contrary, shame is destructive; rather than focusing on an isolated act, it spreads to the whole person. "Shame says, "I am wrong." Shame makes us want to walk away from God and community, and avoid the truth.

To be clear, shame is not from God and should never be used in reconciliation contexts. We’re all created in the image of God, and we’re all embodied souls who were planted in physical bodies by God. No one should feel shame for being born privileged, white, male, attractive, wealthy, etc.

But guilt? I can get behind guilt. Among other things, guilt is a wake-up call.  Even God uses guilt to point out how much we needed Jesus to carry out the most costly rescue mission in history in order to save our guilty behinds. But God also distinguishes guilt from shame, pointing out that Jesus didn’t come to condemn us but rather to give us life.

Guilt is a mechanism through which we admit our blindness, (knowing and unknowing) wrongness and need, and thus turn our hearts towards the One who can give us true life. Without an admission of guilt, there can be no reconciliation. Guilt is good for reconciliation with both God and others.

Classic social psychology research agrees that guilt is good for reconciliation[ii]:

When we feel guilty, we’re motivated to apologize. Apologies are good for reconciliation because they

  • Convey implicit agreement that the action/inaction was wrong.
  • Suggest that we will try not to do it again.
  • Counteract the implication that we doesn’t care about the relationship.

But beyond words, guilt leads us to act differently. When we experience guilt, we

  • Are more likely to have actually learned a lesson (This alone positively affects future behavior.)
  • Try harder to perform positive, just, revolutionary actions.
  • Are more aware of the factors and steps that led to our initial transgression.

Guilt is underrated. Engaging it, meditating on it, confessing it, and repenting of it can be immensely helpful in conversations about inequality and reconciliation work.  Guilt should be a centerpiece of the conversation, rather than something to be avoided.

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FYI, Brazil wasn't all work and no play. This is me, visiting a sea turtle reserve AFTER several hours of snorkeling :)

FYI, Brazil wasn't all work and no play. This is me, visiting a sea turtle reserve AFTER several hours of snorkeling :)

[i] To their credit, most of my students were up to the challenge and ended up being transformed. And according to the course evaluations, they still reported having plenty of fun J

[ii] McMillen & Austin (1971); Carlsmith & Gross (1969)