Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship
I am not Catholic, but as a young cop I coached wrestling at a Catholic school so I guess my keen sense of guilt is understandable. I feel bad about myriad issues, like not calling Mom enough. Guilt is a powerful thing and even though it may cause us a great deal of grief I hate to imagine our country without it.
There are lots of places in the world folks aren’t raised with guilt. These societies use something we know as "shame" to help maintain social order and control people's impulses. The two are distinct, yet often we confuse one for the other.
"Guilt" is a self-generated sense of judgment about ourselves and our actions or thoughts, while "shame" is a reflection of judgment about us from others. Things like honor killings and ritual suicides come from societies that set right a social order by giving those "shamed" a way to restore others' opinions about them, their families, their company, or their country, however extreme it may seem.
In our culture such practices are tough to understand, just as guilt may be an odd concept elsewhere. In shame/honor cultures one actually gains social standing by getting away with an otherwise bad act. Young Spartans successfully completed their initiation into manhood by murdering a slave; the rub was they had to get away with it. Shame didn't come from committing such a cruel act but only from the "mistake" of getting caught.
I am certainly happy we live in a "guilt" culture, since the residue of this guilt is something we hold very dear: trust. In fact, the United States has the highest level of trust in the world. The thing is, guilt just sitting in your heart or your gut isn’t good for you. From time to time we need to remember we have social norms for eliminating this simultaneously healthy and corrosive trait.
I don’t think you can ever rid yourself of all guilty feelings but it's good to eliminate the ones that really eat at you. Years ago I led a class mental rehearsal in which I took cadets through an armed confrontation where they end up shooting and killing an armed assailant. I had more than a few recruits quit the academy after that, but one in particular came to me with a very disturbing revelation.
In this cadet's head, when he pictured the paramedics working on his imaginary assailant he walked up and saw that the dying man was his brother, and he hadn’t been able to sleep since. I promptly sent this military veteran to a superb police psychologist. He returned shaking his head that he had never met a shrink like that but he felt 100% better and hadn’t had any problems sleeping since his "treatment."
It seems the treatment required him to call his brother in the presence of the good doctor and ask for his brother’s forgiveness. Apparently, as young children the soon-to-be deputy had seriously injured his younger brother by accident and the haunting guilt had lived just below the surface ever since. He called his sibling, who didn’t even remember the event, and asked forgiveness. He got, in fact, an affirmation of brotherly love as well and he hung up the phone, got his chit signed, and headed back to enjoy a full career in law enforcement.
What’s that you say? It wasn’t really his brother’s forgiveness he needed? He needed to forgive himself? Exactly, my friends. And maybe you need to start with that to begin clearing your mind of some of the guilt that may haunt you.
Confession, contrition, forgiveness, and redemption are commonly listed as keys to healing a guilty conscience or heart, but it always begins with you forgiving yourself first. I can’t have you hesitating in an armed confrontation because of some deep-seated guilt that makes you believe you deserve to lose or should be punished.
If you also need the forgiveness of someone else then seek that as well. But your mind needs to focus on positive outcomes in critical situations, and freeing yourself from guilt is a good first step. Now if we could just get our politicians to feel either guilt or shame…
Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.