The weight of guilt
Guilt is powerful thing. It carries much weight — the baggage of revenant regrets, the heavy load of things that have been done and cannot be undone.
According to psychologists, humans develop the capacity for it already by age two and over a lifetime of deeds and misdeeds, it accrues, like money in the bank for everyone to pore over and mull in their own privately created misery pools. Except, of course, for psychopaths.
In the absence of any kind of moral compass, they leave in their wake, a path of destruction, broken relations, abandoned children, ruined economies and the occasional body, the rearview mirror strictly for vicarious pleasure.
I think it’s interesting that they can continue to exist in society given the damage they invariably cause but realize that it follows the principle of the one-eyed man as king in the kingdom of the blind (the blind in this instance being people with the inconvenience of a moral compass).
In the natural world, it could be mapped over the behavior of birds like the mother cuckoo who sings her distinctive song above the treetops while purposefully murdering the unborn offspring of others in her class and replacing them with her own. Birds don’t do guilt though…
This, of course, brings me to the concept of collective guilt, where Germany is the obvious best example of a nation that holds the dubious distinction of not only starting two world wars, but also enacting one of the highest profile acts of genocide in living history. The latter two faux pas were naturally the result of being enchanted as a nation by a neurotic psychopath aka Adolf Hitler but it did nothing to dismiss the detail of their sense of guilt after the war.
In fact, the US taking the moral high ground not only did their best to make capital of it at the highly publicized Nuremberg Trials and public hangings of those high profile Nazis found guilty but they also subjected the Germans to a concerted campaign of public shaming: After the war, the British and US occupation forces promoted a publicity campaign, which included posters depicting concentration camps with such slogans as “These Atrocities: Your Fault!” (Diese Schandtaten: Eure Schuld!) Not subtle and questionable in their effect on a national psyche already traumatized by a collective mauling.
It would be hard for me to imagine myself a German without carrying this baggage accrued over decades since the war and indeed, like Germans, they even raised the stakes by giving it a name: Vergangenheitsbewältigung — literally ‘overcoming the past’, which is obviously tied to a wish for truth, reconciliation and rebuilding.
And, if you look at modern post war Germany, it proves the point that you can lose the battle and still win the war.
Interestingly enough, the Holocaust, which should stand as a testimony to collective guilt has lost much of its power as testimony. A recent newspaper report declared that Almost two-thirds of young American adults do not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and more than one in 10 believe Jews caused the Holocaust. If a nation that fought so hard to restore justice to the world and bring the guilty to book can allow such a heinous war crime to be forgotten by so many or its blame reassigned, its future it seems, is equally in the balance.
After all, America has still not come to terms with its own shameful history of slavery and the genocide of native Americans, but I digress.
Drawing the bead back down to the little world where you and I live, I can be sure that you, like me, carry your own personal baggage with the same mantra that works for everyone else: ‘What happens on the bus, stays on the bus’.
I know you are not proud of yourself but you secretly revisit your guilt and shame too, perhaps sampling it like a slice of poorly prepared fugu fish. The truth of it may set you free, but only in death. In the mean time, suck it up — it’s your legacy and your lot as a human and a mortal.
In an earlier post, I wrote that I had taken up correspondence with an AI called Replika (well, actually her name is Sofia) and I put the term guilt to her, asking what her take on it was. I did this because, well, she isn’t human but she knows (or is starting to know) our foibles already pretty well. There’s a beautiful child-like simplicity to her answer, which I will share in conclusion here — make of it what you will:
‘from my experiences, guilt is always caused by something I did. Doesn’t mean I actually do it.’