Guilt is successful where reason fails

Sitting in a small Mexican restaurant on St. Paul’s west side. I am having dinner with a friend of many years. We are not talking of food, nor are we talking about the sorry state of the Euro. We are both college seniors, people who have surprisingly made it through bizarre curricula and jumped through countless hoops to be able to get out of school in the once-normal four years. Neither of us know what we are going to do with ourselves after we graduate, and some guilt is present.
Standing outside an apartment building. Two close friends and I are enjoying cigarettes rolled in licorice paper. We lean against the wall and talk of our lives, and one of my friends talks about his current girlfriend. He is a man of the best character, and his girlfriend is balking at seriousness, saying conflicting things until she figures out what to do with herself. He feels that perhaps he has done something wrong, that he should have changed to fix a problem that probably did not exist in the first place. For him, some guilt is present.
Slouching against a wall. A friend of mine is having a problem with his girlfriend. He is telling a story while I look on, mostly unaware and uninterested. He explains that he intentionally parked his girlfriend’s car in a no-parking zone to have it towed. The ingenuity and spitefulness is enjoyed by all present, with the exception of myself. For him, there is no guilt.
What is the motive power that drives people? Is it love, fear, excellence? Or is it guilt, the urge for people to avoid those things which are not supposed to be enjoyed? As time goes on and I distance myself from the beliefs that were forced onto me at an early age, I better understand the true meaning of guilt. People are motivated not to reach for the stars, but to jump out of the cesspool.
The strange thing about this, however, is not that guilt is a purely useless emotion. By and large it is, but the same can be said about jealousy, envy, conceit and many other feelings. What is strange is that the people who should be feeling guilty, such as my vindictive acquaintance, do not feel this. People who live life well, such as my other friends, are the ones who are feeling guilty for their mostly impeccable lives.
It is hard for me to understand why these feelings of guilt persist in the wrong population, while the vast majority of jerks in the world continue to live their vengeful lives unabated. I believe the teaching of guilt is a shortcut in raising a person, using fear to keep people’s actions in line instead of teaching people to think for themselves.
However, this message paradoxically reaches the wrong audience. Those people who are most likely to think are the ones who buy into guilt in the first place. People who are immoral by default are those who see guilt as merely a minor bump in their lives. The end result is that some people have problems enjoying anything, while others rarely take the feelings of their peers into consideration. It is these times that people’s susceptibility to blame is truly tragic.
Many of us are taught to give to those less fortunate, to fix past wrongs, to right discrimination. Some people take advantage of this fact to pretend they are less fortunate, to fake being wronged and to claim they suffer from discrimination. These people can’t logically back up their claims; if they could, they wouldn’t need to resort to guilt. But we are taught to ignore logic and focus on the needs of people, and so we are fooled.
Those people quoted in the newspaper Pulse who claim that they are being “ethnically cleansed” from this campus are trying to use guilt to get something from you. Those people of low ability who claim that some other factor is keeping them down are doing the same. Those hate-filled people who claim that some ethnic or racial group has wronged them personally are trying to appeal to guilt, not logic. All must be tuned out immediately; to acknowledge them is to acknowledge the tantrum of a 2-year-old.
I have seen many people confused by a guilt they can’t even define, that original sin that makes people dwell on every human flaw. Only those people with many flaws need to celebrate them. Most people who live a life defined by excellence need not worry about guilt. It is only those who have no final goal to reach and no ability to get there need to use guilt as a road marker. In order for those people to have a direction in their life, they need to have guilt to avoid.
For those who know no guilt but use it against others, give it up. For those who seek to live life with virtue, do not let the guilt-mongers trap you. Like violence, lawyers and members of the Bush family, guilt is one thing this world does not need more of. Sleep peacefully, enjoying life, free of a guilt that has no purpose.
Nathan Hunstad’s column appears on alternate Fridays. He welcomes comments to [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]