Guilt or accountability?

Sep 20, 2019

We all deeply crave to be seen as a good person and cannot stand it when we’re not. So when we do something like have a fight with a friend or take something that doesn’t belong to us, we immediately feel bad – we feel guilty.

It’s necessary, of course, to acknowledge our actions, but guilt exaggerates; it’s neurotic. Essentially it’s anger, except that we ourselves are the object of it. With this neurotic guilt we immediately feel, “I’m a bad person.” But we’re not a bad person; our actions mightn’t always be the best, but they’re not set in stone; we can change. But to do that, we need to be accountable for our actions, to own them.

Also, according to whose sets of rules are we a “bad person” – or a “good person”, for that matter. We’ve spent our lives unconsciously internalizing externally-imposed views of what is good and bad: what God says, or Mummy says, or the government or the police. . . And we attempt to live up to these expectations and judge ourselves accordingly.

Often, too, if no-one knows that we did that bad thing, then we think, “I got away with it!” That’s childish. It’s a bit like if, when I discover that I’ve eaten some food that I’m allergic to, I think, “Oh, no, what a bad a person I am!” Or to think, “Oh, good, my doctor didn’t see me eat it, so I got away with it”. That’s absurd, isn’t it?

So, what’s an appropriate attitude? If we take the Buddhist view that everything we think and do and say just naturally programs our mind, produces the person we become – this is the natural law of karma – then guilt is not helpful. And there’s no such thing as “getting away with it”.

Tibetan Buddhists have a practice called purification – I talked about it last November – and the first of the four-steps in this process is to regret what we have done. This “regret” is a self-respectful, wholesome attitude: I acknowledge that I did something uncool and regret it because I don’t want the unfortunate consequences, which naturally leads to immediately seeking to remedy it – just like I would if I’d eaten that wrong food. It’s a practical attitude, not a moralistic one.

Another way of framing this attitude is that it’s one of self-forgiveness, of compassion for oneself. We’re human, we make mistakes. But we can fix them. And the first step is to own them, which brings optimism and courage.

We can’t change the action itself; it’s done. But by owning it, we attempt to make amends and then, crucially, make a firm decision to not do it again. That, too, brings optimism and courage.

And then, as a consequence, we lessen our anger towards others, which, like guilt, also exaggerates: “You’re a bad person!” No, their action is, not the whole person. And from this comes compassion: they’re human too; they make mistakes too. We’re all in the same boat.

But we must start with ourselves.

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