Guilt! Is there a more powerful force in the universe? Okay, so there probably is a more powerful force in the universe, but when it comes to human motivation it ranks right up there with love and anger and other high-level emotions.
To know guilt is to admit to having a conscience. To feel guilt is to admit to oneself that we have done something wrong, something inappropriate, something that goes against the normal moral and ethical code of society.
Naturally, there are many levels of guilt that are directly related to the intensity and seriousness of the offense. Whether it stems from something as mundane as pilfering a snack from the cookie jar when we are told not to spoil our dinner or results from the more serious sin of adultery or the capital crime of murder, guilt is guilt and we must deal with it.
We are taught from infancy the difference between right and wrong. Of course, some of us have better teachers than others, which in and of itself, leads to a greater likelihood that moral standards will be set at a higher level. We humans seem to learn best by example, so environment and associations play a big part in our early development.
Think about it. Who were your childhood heroes? Mine were such stalwart characters as Hop-a-long Cassidy, Roy Rodgers, The Lone Ranger and Superman. Even though those first three were gun-totin’ cowboy types from the wild-wild west, they stood for something good in all of us. Theirs was a high moral ground that could never be undermined or corrupted. And Superman? Well, what can you say? Truth, justice and the American way. He was the ultimate superhero. Who better for a child to emulate?
But superheroes are not always those cowboy and comic book characters we read about. Sometimes reality can trump fiction by a large margin. In fact, our first superheroes are probably very real to us: Our parents, an older sibling, Uncle Billy - the war hero, Aunt Jane - who brings us the most marvelous presents, the beat cop on the corner in the shiny clean-pressed uniform, we never know just where our inspiration might spring forth, but it can make a lasting impression from our earliest days forward.
But that coin can potentially land on the other side: the guy on the street corner who always seems to have a fistful of money and lots of influence in the neighborhood. Or the guy who says he can protect you from the bad things that go on, but only if you join the neighborhood gang. You can fill in the blanks with other examples of bad behavior better that I, but the fact remains that the influences are always there and they help to shape our moral compass.
Not all who are surrounded by negative influences grow to be morally bankrupt adults. Quite the contrary. Many find the intestinal fortitude to stand up to these negative influences and rise above their environment to achieve a higher moral ground. To think otherwise is to deny reality. Morality is a conscious choice we make every day of our lives and the basic element of conscience, which brings us back to guilt.
We’ve all known someone in our lives who could, as they say, guilt us into doing anything. There is the stereotypical Jewish/Catholic/Italian or other ethnic mother who is expert in laying guilt trips on their children. Not that this need be an ethnic trait as it might occur in any family at any level. And it is not limited to family.
Charitable organizations often result to guilt as a motivational tool to garner support. How, in this land off plenty, can we allow the poverty-stricken, starving children of –Insert Country’s name here – perish without lending our (your) support? “Send money now!” It is a reality. But it is a reality that most of us fail to consider until someone reminds us and shocks us with guilt in order to spur us to action.
But guilt is not always cast upon us. It often comes from inside and this beckons back to our original premise of knowing the difference between right and wrong. As we have seen, this is a learned process that develops over time through experience. And the old saying, “confession is good for the soul” harkens directly to the depth of our commitment to admitting the truth, not only to others but to ourselves.
So, guilt can be a good thing if it can ultimately get us to truth. Truth is, after all, what we expect from others. Should others expect any less from us? So, fess up, Skippy. You’ll feel better.
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