Guilt, remorse, and repentance are a curse on humanity and very useful tools for those who might want to control us. The three words tend to be used interchangeably and dictionary definitions often use one to describe the other. The feeling that we have done wrong can eat away at us and is often counterproductive. We just have to consider the drug addict who is full of remorse about his habit. This feeling of remorse is an emotional pain and will simply motivate the addict to have another fix to diminish the pain.
There is also a fundamental assumption made when we feel remorse. We assume that we have free will and that given the exact same circumstances we would do things wholly differently. Not so. Unless we happen to believe that we live outside a world driven by cause and effect, it is easy to see that given the same circumstances, with the same knowledge and internal state, we would do exactly the same thing again. If we do not have free will (and to believe in free will is to believe in causeless effects) there can be no blame – there is no praise either. The Buddhist mantra of “no blame” is very apt here.
Most of our guilt and remorse comes from societal conditioning. The tradition that dictates young girls should have their genitals mutilated (circumcised) causes many parents to subject their daughters to the agony of this procedure without any guilt. In the world of business, it is very common for salespeople to exaggerate and lie to get a sale – again with no remorse or guilt. Religious conditioning, on the other hand, tends to fill people with remorse. Standards for behavior are laid down that are simply unachievable, and when an individual cannot meet these standards they become filled with remorse. Many so-called spiritual traditions condition their adherents in the same way. So if a man is told that it is sinful to look with lust on a woman, there is no doubt that he will be filled with remorse most of his life.
Any behavior that results in emotional pain is inadequate and misguided. Guilt and remorse are forms of emotional pain, serving no useful purpose. Some might complain that this is the green light for a free-for-all. Such a notion is easily dealt with. First of all we have laws, and to harm someone else often incurs a penalty. It is the threat of this penalty that keeps most people within the law. More importantly, we are, to varying degrees, rational creatures, and it is not so difficult to see that if default behavior was to harm others our society would quickly degenerate into barbarism.
Conscience is a loaded concept since much of what we consider to be conscience is simply conditioning and childhood programming. The rationale behind our behavior is quite simple. When we are in the grip of the emotions (hatred, excitement, envy, anger, regret etc.) we are quite likely to cause harm to another. If we can behave with an understanding we are much more likely to be cooperative – for everyone’s’ sake. And so we should seek understanding. It will not only liberate us from our own misery but enable us to form a less troubled society.
If you find yourself troubled by guilt and remorse simply try to understand, without judgment, why you did what you did. You also need to look at the standard you are comparing your behavior against. Understanding is the key to liberation, and no more so than with guilt and remorse.
The two archenemies of the human race are Hatred and Remorse. – Spinoza
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