Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Death of Shame and Guilt

Guilt and shame are like warning lights on a car dashboard.  They signal us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.  Like our cars, ignoring, denying, or suppressing our acknowledgement of these warning lights, it doesn't make the problem go away and in fact only makes the problem worse.  Guilt and shame inform us that we have done something we should not have done or have not done something they should have done.  They are warning lights from the engine that is our conscience.

 The conscience, as defined by the Church, is "Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law" ( Catechism 1778)  The conscience is that part of our human mind and soul that distinguishes between right and wrong, between good and evil.  It is not a finished product at birth, but must be formed. 

The general directionality of the conscience in a responsible human being is supposed to move from self-centered to other-centered.  There are psychological disorders where this does not happen: narcissism, sociopathic disorders, and psychotic disorders.  Part of the formation of the conscience is shame and guilt.  Shame alerts us we should express remorse or sorrow for our actions that were wrong.  Guilt helps us to understand we need to make restitution for our actions which have harmed others. Both force us to see that our actions bear consequence not merely on myself but on others as well!  They are signals that our actions and our conscience are not in sync.  To achieve equilibrium, shame and guilt should be addressed by the positive steps of contrition and reconciliation.  When these warning light go unaddressed, it is to the detriment of both the individual and everyone around them.

However these two warning lights aren't merely being ignored, we are trying to snip the wires connecting them to the engine. If we can deaden guilt and shame, we can live in a world where I am always right and owed.  How are we doing this?  Remember, the conscience must be molded.  We are doing this by actually preventing the move from self-centered to other-centered.  When we do things like  giving everybody rewards for merely participating in an activity, even if the participation was little more than breathing, we do not encourage drive to excellence.  We do not give an impetus for forward movement.  We protect from failure.  This is dangerous.  If I see no reason to change a course for betterment, than why try?  If failure is not a possibility, why try?  If I simply will be handed reward without effort, why try?  Why change?  If the world is simply going to change for me, why should I change to accommodate anyone else?  We encourage a stunting of growth which will spread like a cancer throughout the person.  It is a very short trip between 'why try' to 'I am owed.'

In the spiritual life, this is fatal.  Because everything is about me, all of my actions and words can be justified as protecting the most important thing: me! What happens then to shame and guilt?  It turns very quickly into resentment and anger.  Any entity that challenges me is now the enemy.  Any entity that doesn't cater to me, pat me on the head, tell me how good I am, and make me feel special is now the enemy.  It breeds hubris.  It breeds universalism, a heresy (false teaching) that everyone goes to heaven.  Heaven becomes the ultimate participation trophy! Anyone who believes that makes themselves fit for hell.  

When we look at our society, we see the fruit of the seed planted: young adults who want everything free and immediate, no comprehension of the consequences of their choices, a clear vision, however, of the consequences of other people's choices on them,  cruelty, and an ends justifies the means.  Anger and resentment are now the defining characteristics we see so very often.

The anger and resentment are a direct result of the attempted murder of guilt and shame.  If we wish to reverse course, it will be reconnecting the wires between the conscience and the warning signs of guilt and shame.  Guilt and shame are properly addressed with remorse and repentance.  It is not God's will for us to live in either a state of guilt and shame nor in a state of anger and resentment.  In the Catholic Church we have the sacrament of Reconciliation to address these head on.  Is it any wonder in a society where the wires are snipped that Confession lines dwindle? We need to get back to the correct formation of conscience; confession is an integral part of this forward motion. It gives a place for shame and guilt to not only go but to find resolution.  If we want the anger and resentment to subside, then we can no longer avoid addressing guilt and shame; in fact, we must let them out of their tombs and be the warning lights they are meant to be. 

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