The Human Condition and Guilt are intricately enmeshed. Not a day goes by without regrets, a feeling that I should not have done what I did, & then agonizing over past deeds and their outcomes. While doing something makes one feel bad, sometimes we feel guilty without any act or commission. Thoughts, plans, emotions also take us on a guilt trip…how can I think like this? why am I planning to do this? how can I feel so negatively about that person? all of these are rabbit holes dragging us down in a negative spiral…and the omni-present guilt!!
Sounds familiar? Each one of us understands the truth of Gorky’s words as life goes on and we learn to introspect. Having lost our innocence, we soon experience Al-Rahbani’s wisdom as we continue to careen on the incessant treadmill we call life!! This goes back to Voltaire’s aphorism: Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains!! and do we feel happy? No we bristle against the chains & feel guilty in the process. दिल वो है कि फ़रियाद से लबरेज़ है हर वक़्त, हम वो हैं कि कुछ मुँह से निकलने नहीं देते|What could have been, always over-shadows what is in front of us; we perpetually chase a chimera, wallowing in guilt, & feeling miserable in the process.
And yet, feelings of guilt have their place: when you are contemplating a course of action that would hurt or harm. Going to War, Firing an employee, Insulting someone, Bullying & Bull-dozing ones’ POV, Cheating or misleading….all of these are classic examples of the acts that make us think about consequences & how history would judge us.
Guilt awakens and ripens in a social context. I am always concerned how others would see me, whether I would be “found out”. Guilt comes when you are not sure whether you did the right thing? whether you will be saddled with outcomes you had not bargained for?? Zig Ziglar puts it so well, ” With integrity, you have nothing to fear, since you have nothing to hide. With integrity, you will do the right thing, so you will have no guilt”. But breathes there a man who will always be on the side of Integrity & Correctness? We know that even Saints have a past. And it is when you pass the path of “brimstone and fire” you will rise anew: but for that, we must go through the deep valley of Guilt and atonement.
Possibly the dilemma & consequences of guilt & a wrong act are best captured in the anguish of Lady Macbeth. Having killed her King, she loses her sleep, dreams of her dastardly act, & keeps washing her hands to rid them of blood. Her guilt keeps the blood on her hands fresh & visible, leading to the famous words, ” Yet here’s a spot…Out, damned spot; out, I say… What, will these hands ne’er be clean? … Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” (Act V Scene 1). While Lady Macbeth feels guilty, think about Kansa who killed 6 children of Devaki immediately after they were born. Did he feel any guilt? Rather he felt righteous. Genghis Khan first tasted war when he was 9 years of age when his father was poisoned & he was held captive. His notoriety ever increased till he died 65 years of age. Nowhere is there any mention in history of remorse or regret for the barbarism that his armies unleashed & Genghis Khan himself led.
Guilt as an emotion has been around since the definition of good & bad, correct & wrong. The Biblical reference of Adam’s Fall from the Garden of Eden, the practice of Confession and Absolution all have an underlying logic of guilt. If you do not go to Church regularly, if you do not confess, you would burn in Hell: an euphemism for the pangs of Guilt which would rack & wreck you. But then, why go so far, to understand the all-pervading nature of guilt ?
Our mothers & wives keep us well aware of the power of guilt. ” Eat all that is on your plate, there are people who do not get 2 square meals a day!!” “Alcohol/Drinking is bad. If you continue like this you will bring ruin on to the entire family” “you have so many advantages that people do not have. When will you learn to value them?” Anyone who has been on a diet to reduce weight has felt the weight of guilt on his conscience. Why did I eat that sweet? Can I take a “cheat day” today instead of next week? Guilt keeps us guessing as we careen down the diet plan. Sometimes I feel Wives and Mothers are there just to tell us what we are doing wrong & what we need to atone for! If not at home, there is the boss at the office telling you, in full stereophonic sound, what you need to change & how. When he stops, our colleagues & peers take over driving the Guilt Train, explaining in great detail what we did wrong & how it has hurt them.
Is all this blame game totally objective? Am I really guilty as charged? Is there a lot of subjectivity at stake here and what if all my accusers were wrong? Is Justice ever Absolute? Are Guilty verdicts turned in by the Courts & Jury a true reflection of causality & consequent Guilt? If they are, why do we have Courts of Appeal? How often does the Higher Court over rule the judgement delivered by the lower court? If that is possible, what about a Higher, Higher Court to stand in judgment over the Lower Court’s decision of Guilt? Where does all this stop? I have very often wondered about the mindset of the condemned living out their last days on the “Death Row”. Do they feel guilty?
Do they repent what they did?? Did Ram feel bad about subjecting Sita to an “agni pariksha”? Did Sita regret crossing the “Laxman Resha”? Did Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Bormann, van Ribbentrop, Joseph Mengele ever feel guilty about the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust? The social context of Guilt gets exacerbated when we talk of the Holocaust, as even today Neo Nazi groups are ready to defend Hitler & the Nazis & even walk the path shown then!!
So who is Guilty? Who is not Guilty? Like most emotions and feelings…it is all in your mind! A Mussolini justifies inequalities. A Martin Luther King stands against it. A Gandhi gets freedom for a nation through non-violent Satyagraha. But does that make a Subhash Chandra Bose any less relevant? The sacrifices of Chaphekar Bandhu or Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev & Rajguru did not go in vain per Indians. But for the British? The revolutionaries felt no guilt on the noose. But, did Saunders regret his actions? Did the British rulers rue the Jallianwala Bagh? General Dyer was the toast of the British society when he was shot down by Sardar Udham Singh. Who bears the guilt? Britain became Great on the loot and plunder of Africa and Asia. But History has never shamed or blamed the British. It is said the Hunter will always be the hero, till the Lions learn to write their own stories. So indeed, Guilt is a construct, a concept, up for interpretation.
I go back to Shakespeare’s Macbeth to conclude:
“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death… Life’s but a walking shadow… It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
So do not get waylaid dear friends by Guilt as you traverse this tortuous path. Learn to Let Go. Move forward and be ready to face the new sun with a smile on your face. Shrug off the negativity and guilt. It is just sound & fury, signifying nothing. Feel and Heal!!!
I will end by reminding you: Let It Go! Never let the past weigh you down. The lighter you travel, the faster will be your journey: vikas