Guilt has been pictured with great feeling in a number of great works of literature. Of course, as usual, it is Shakespeare who springs to mind and in the first instance in Macbeth, that great play about crime and guilt. The destructive power of guilt on the husband and wife which reduces them to madness is vividly portrayed – the dagger that floats before the eye, the hands that all the perfumes of Arabia cannot cleanse of blood. Long before armies attack their castle, their minds have been attacked and destroyed by guilt. An evil deed is seen to bring retribution with it, even before outside forces can get round to it.
To feel guilt and remorse if you have done something wrong, injured someone, is considered a good quality. All religions praise the ability of a person to feel truly guilty and regret his deeds. A sinner who repents in truth is considered to be halfway to redemption. Remorse brings the possibility of forgiveness, and of absolution. Just as gratitude is considered a virtue. And yet both guilt and gratitude have a really corrosive effect on the mind of the person who feels the emotions. If you are forced to feel guilty or grateful, you generally end up resenting the person who made you feel either of these.
If you have observed people around you, you would have found that the ones who have done an injury to someone dislike the victim rather than the other way round. It has always fascinated me why this should be so. If someone did you an injury, surely you are the one who should feel indignant, who should hate or at the very least, dislike the person who did the injury. But you find that the victim is able to forgive and even sometimes forget the injury and live amicably with the perpetrator. It is the person who did the injury, who feels guilt at having done it, who dislikes the victim. Perhaps, this is because of the constant reminder of a wrong deed, the shame of having behaved badly and the stirring of guilt in the mind. If you could forgive yourself, maybe, you would not dislike the person you hurt and who may have forgiven you.
Wordsworth, unusually for him (his philosophy is usually more optimistic and bright), talks of this feeling when he says, ‘From the body of one guilty deed a thousand ghostly fears and haunting thoughts proceed.’ It is these ‘ghostly fears and haunting thoughts’ that make you dislike the person who induces them in you. South puts it even more strongly. He is sure that, ‘Guilt upon the conscience is like rust upon iron, both defiles and consumes it, gnawing and creeping into it, as that does which at last eats out the very heart and substance of the metal.’
So, is it good to feel guilty and remorseful or is it self-defeating? Human beings resent anything that makes them feel small and mean, that damages their image of themselves. And if the feeling of guilt brings along with it this lessening of one’s value of oneself, it is likely to be harmful. But surely, if you have done harm, if you have hurt someone, it is only right that you should feel remorseful, should feel the need to make it up to them. It is really a conundrum, the question when guilt can serve as a force of regeneration and when it becomes corrosive and destructive. It would be bad for the race as a whole if no one had a conscience, if no one felt regret at the injuries dealt to others. But what if with the consciousness, comes resentment and even hatred? Does it still serve the purpose then? Is there something in between then?
Could the ability to forgive oneself be the solution? If you can forgive yourself for the mistake made, for the injury done, you can forgive the victim for being the victim and inducing guilt in you. Of course, by definition, this would mean that the injury was inadvertently done which very often it isn’t. And even then, it would require a very developed mind to do so, a highly philosophical way of thinking. That is not easily attained by an ordinary human being. So, one ends up living with guilt, with trying not to resent the ones injured, trying to forgive oneself, and the victim for being the victim!