Living with Guilt
“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” Voltaire
What is Guilt
The feeling of remorse or self-reproach one experiences when they feel responsible for a wrong or offense. We all experience feelings of guilt from time-to-time for many different reasons. No one is exempt. We have all felt guilt at some point and to some degree. Guilt can destroy lives such as when one is found guilty of a crime or as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth where Lady Macbeth is driven to insanity and ultimately death as a result of her guilt.
The Effects of Guilt
Guilt affects people in different ways. Some will become sick as a result of their guilt. Others have taken their own life to escape their guilt. Some suffer with their guilt while others learn to deal with it. Many have confused guilt with shame, but it is easy to distinguish between the two. Guilt is what you feel for what we do. Shame is what we feel for what we are. In other words, what I did verses who I am. Even though shame is a much stronger emotion both shame and guilt have an immense impact on our perception of self and how we interact with others. One can experience guilt but have no shame or can be full of shame but have no guilt.
I have lived with guilt for a good part of my adult life. Every day since an early December 1979 morning I have lived with the feeling of guilt. That morning two friends were killed in a terrorist attack. I feel guilty for their deaths. My work schedule had been changed from days to evenings which meant my friend John was up front driving the bus that morning when it was attacked not someone else. It also meant that I was not sitting where Emil sat that morning when the gunfire killed him.
For me it went something like this. First, I was happy to be alive but saddened by my friends’ deaths. I was grateful it was not me but hurt for the families involved. Over time I began to think more and more about what had happened. In time a great sense of remorse filled me over what had happened that fateful morning. I began to second guess myself and play the “what if” and “If I had only” games which brought on even deeper feelings of guilt – “If I had only been there” or “I should have seen it coming.” These feelings of guilt were normal until they completely consumed my life.
What Guilt will Do
Guilt will grind you down, it will eat away at you every moment of every day and it will crush your spirit and desire to continue on in life. If guilt is left unchecked it can and will destroy you.
In many regards my guilt was self-punishment self-imposed for something I believed was my fault. Since my guilt was self-imposed over time, I have been able to reconcile with my guilt and what happened that December morning. Don’t’ wait to say the things that need to be said. Don’t wait to do the things that need to be done. Losing someone before saying what needs to be said or doing what needs to be done will result in feelings of guilt that could become your own demise. Living with guilt is a difficult thing to do.