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[The following is from written responses to a group after some 
weekly discussions that included the topics of guilt and forgiveness.]

Guilt and Forgiveness
Richard Garlikov

1) Deserving Forgiveness
I believe there are two separate kinds of cases where a person deserves forgiveness from another person, or, to put it from the other perspective, where a person ought to forgive someone else. 

The first is fairly easy (though it may be more a case of "excusing" rather than "forgiving"; I am not sure): One ought to forgive (or excuse) someone else when they do something wrong that is perfectly easy to "understand" their doing and which most people or all people in their position would probably have done too. If you put a glass of milk next to the plate of a three year old, on the side that he eats from, the odds are very good, he will spill the glass of milk. If he is sorry or upset about spilling the milk, you should immediately forgive him and explain about where the glass should have been in the first place -- out of the way of his elbow while he was eating. The adult case I like to point to in this regard is the one where a motorist, making a left turn from your right, inadvertently pulls out in front of you to cross your lane, after stopping and looking right at you while obviously not seeing you.  Usually s/he pulls out nonchalantly right in front of you with you driving right at his door -- then perhaps suddenly sees you and drops his mouth open with his eyes bugged out in terror because he realizes he has dangerously really screwed up. Or he may not ever see you -- the last person that did this to me was a cop; and he never even realized he nearly just got himself killed. This is different from the case of someone who intentionally tries to cut you off or cuts in front of you; and it is usually obvious which case is which. I immediately forgive anyone who pulls the inadvertent stunt because I understand it is just some sort of human error, not some selfish or malicious character flaw. I don't even get mad; but often find it even amusing -- as long as no one gets hurt. 

Now, not every wrong is one out of "human nature" that deserves immediate forgiveness; and, of course, one cannot continuously make the same mistake and point to human nature. Humans are supposed to learn from their mistakes, not keep repeating them with absolutely no attempt to improve. 

The second kind of case of forgiveness is, I think, the more interesting and more of what we have been discussing; the case where someone has done something wrong and where he ought to have known better and has no excuse (such as insanity or brain tumor or threat to a loved one, etc.) or justification of any sort for his action. I think in such a case, the following 4 R's are required for him to deserve forgiveness; and if these 4 R's are met, he deserves to be forgiven: 

1) Regret or remorse-- genuinely understanding what he did was wrong and being sorry that it happened. ("Genuinely" precludes remorse or regret just toward getting caught, and it precludes feigned remorse just to get off from punishment; genuine remorse may be difficult to distinguish from talented pretending, but the point here is to at least know what is necessary, even if one might not be able to decide whether it is occurring.) 

2) Repentance -- apologizing to the person wronged. 

3) Restitution or repayment or redress -- not only returning or restoring what was broken or taken, but additionally paying (or making up) for the pain and trouble the victim (and others) suffered. 

4) Rehabilitation -- the genuine attempt not to repeat that kind of wrong again. I don't think that rehabilitation necessarily has to be successful, but I think it has to be an honest and sincere or genuinely real and continuing effort. 

Now some wrongs do not allow all these things to occur. In murder, one cannot restore or redress or repay the harm. And one cannot apologize, at least not on this earth, to the victim once the victim is dead. I think it is a very real question whether forgiveness, as opposed to clemency or mercy (in the sense of simply reducing or withholding the punishment), can be given in such cases, even by God. God might forgive you for the harm you have done to Him by murdering one of his creations, but I think it is a logical impossibility for God to forgive you on behalf of the person murdered, his family, loved ones, etc. Forgiveness cannot be originated, I am certain, by a party not wronged, on behalf of another party. I might ask to have a particular murderer not punished on some particular grounds; but that is not the same as forgiving him. Logically, only victims can forgive; so when they are not around to do it; it is not possible. 

The reason I believe forgiveness is deserved when 1- 4 are met is that the wrongdoer has then done everything he can to put the situation the way it would have been had he not done wrong, and he has the right attitude about his actions and has learned from his error. I think nothing more could be reasonably demanded if one is ever to forgive at all. If someone steals ten dollars from you and returns you twenty dollars a day later because he is sorry and wants to make it up to you -- and he explains to your bookie why it was not your fault you couldn't pay your $10.00 bet, pays it for you and offers to let his knees get broken in your place, you can't justifiably ask him to pay you another two million before you will consider forgiving him. He has done enough. 

I also believe 1- 4 are necessary, otherwise your "forgiveness" is hollow. The priest who immediately says he forgives his killer as the killer is plunging the knife into him with no compunction about doing it, is mouthing the words; but doing so too soon. He is ignoring the crime, not forgiving it. Ignoring wrong is not forgiving it. If you immediately forgive everybody everything they intentionally do wrong; you have emptied the concept of forgiveness of any possible meaning or application. You treat contrite people the same way you treat uncontrite ones, etc. You can say you are forgiving, but that is like saying you will call every loss in baseball a real victory. Calling something something else does not make it so; and refusing to recognize cases like 1- 4 as being different from cases not like 1- 4 does not mean there is no difference. 

Finally, I think the Bronson "Death Wish", and Clint Eastwood "Dirty Harry" (and other) movies are very relevant here in that when Bronson and Eastwood kill their antagonists, the antagonists are always shown meeting absolutely none of 1- 4 above. Eastwood and Bronson always come upon them continuing to do evil, reveling in it, etc. The have no excuse, no regret, do not try to stop or redress their past wrongs (and even try to do it more, or add to it -- sometimes attacking the same victim a second time) and make no apology. Half the time they even are trying to do it to Eastwood or Bronson as well. In short the people have no redeeming reasons why they should be forgiven or shown mercy or granted clemency. The one Eastwood movie where this is different is "Sudden Impact", where the originally seen "murderer" is found by Eastwood to have legitimate reasons to kill her "victims" so he even ends up helping her do it and go free. Regardless of any other sort of social problem with these movies, if any, I think these movies show an intuitive insight about 1- 4 above and their relationship to forgiveness and/or possibly mercy. (Since I think forgiveness implies mercy, though not necessarily vice versa.) 

Now there are tons of unanswered questions about clemency or mercy or about punishment; about responsibility, what constitutes legitimate excuse for doing wrong; about evil intent versus negligence, etc., etc. Those are related, but different issues. I think the grounds for forgiveness are those above and are fairly straightforward.

2) Inflicting Guilt Feelings

There is a distinction between guilt and guilt feelings. One can be guilty of some misdeed or mistake and feel no guilt, and/or not even recognize having done something wrong. And one can feel guilty (or seem to feel guilty) about something that was not wrong, but which perhaps one mistakenly believes was wrong. [Both kinds of cases show why conscience alone -- even a sensitive conscience -- is an untrustworthy guide to the moral life.] What I want to comment on here are some causes of guilt feelings, particularly unwarrantedly excessive guilt feelings. 

I want to discuss actual feelings of guilt and not other sorts of bad feelings that are sometimes mistaken for guilt; hence, I will discuss mainly those cases where someone has done something wrong or at least believes he has. So I will not be discussing cases like the one mentioned in the forum one night of someone's knowing he is unjustly blamed for a wrong he did not commit and for which he feels terrible about being thought blameworthy when he was not in fact responsible. That person feels bad the person blaming him is upset with him, but it is not his fault. Though he is the focus of blame, he is not the cause of it, so he is not guilty; and his feeling bad is not the same thing as feeling guilty. Of course, there are times it is difficult to tell whether a given action is right or wrong, but for purposes of discussing guilt feelings I will presuppose that determination is able to be made. If one cannot tell whether he has done wrong or not, then he should not be confident about feeling guilty. One has to think he has done wrong in order to feel guilty. Therefore, finding out one has not done wrong where one thought one had, should relieve any guilt feelings. There are certain kinds of cases I will point out shortly where many people tend to think they have done wrong when they in fact have not. And there is a typical kind of case where, though one has done something wrong, he is not blameworthy, or is not as blameworthy as he thinks. Guilt feelings, or excessive guilt feelings, are not warranted in such cases. 

Now some of the tactics that inflict excessive guilt feelings can inflict bad feelings that are not those of guilt, as when one is accused of wrongdoing and has his character and/or judgment unfairly abused or questioned, etc. And there are certain similarities to how people respond both when they are guilty and when they are not. That is, one might feel guilty or simply hurt when a person they respect or are subservient to questions or condemns their character for a wrong or alleged wrong; but that same person might get mad and not feel guilty if someone they do not respect, or who is subservient to them, questions or condemns their character for a wrong or alleged wrong, even if the condemnation is deserved. 

I will be discussing tactics that can inflict (excessive) guilt, but they will not always do so. A person with a strong or selfish ego, or who has an insufficiently sensitive conscience, may always simply take offense at any accusation, no matter who makes it, rather than ever feel guilt or shame, even when he is blameworthy. Or, as just mentioned, a tactic that might inflict guilt when used by one person may not work when used by another. Having your father or your boss accuse you of something is different from having your child or someone you care less about anyway accuse you of it. Or a tactic that works in some situations may fail in others. One morning when something else was bothering my wife she became really angry at me and blew up about how I had stacked the dishes after washing them the night before: "Why can't you ever stack the dishes right! You don't do anything the way you should! I may as well just do everything around here myself! What's the point of even being married ..." etc. Many days that would have made me feel terrible; but that day my ego was unperturbed, so I just pleaded guilty and asked for a blindfold and a cigarette before my surely deserved execution. (Then I asked what was really bothering her, since I thought she was slightly overreacting to the dishes not being the way she would have stacked them, which was hardly a sin or a crime, or even an error.) So though I will be describing causes of (excessive) guilt feelings, keep in mind that does not mean they are inevitable causes. They are causes when other conditions are "right", such as being done by the right person to a "properly receptive" person whose ego or self esteem, or whatever, is fragile at the time, etc.

Self-inflicted Guilt

I think one can have excessive guilt feelings if one is not as understanding about one's own mistakes, flaws, misdeeds, or inadequacies as one might be about anyone else with the same flaws. Some people hold themselves more accountable or to a higher standard than they would anyone else. That is unwarranted and actually unfair. It is a reverse from the normally thought of double standard, where one holds others accountable for wrongs one thinks it is okay for oneself to commit; but it is just as unfair. (Since the Golden Rule is meant to prevent the "normal" double standard, I believe a sensitive person's companions to the Golden Rule ought to be "Do unto yourself as you would do unto others" or "Do unto yourself as you would have others do unto themselves.") The difference is that in the one case one feels guilty when one ought to forgive oneself and in the other one feels no guilt when one ought to. This kind of excessive guilt feelings is related to lack of self-forgiveness for an understandable or natural flaw, a natural human flaw. It is often a self-inflicted kind of guilt. There are probably many reasons why some people expect more of themselves than they do of others, and certainly more than others expect of them. It is helpful for them at least to realize they do that. Some of the guilt feelings may then ease or disappear. There may be other, more psychological, perhaps unrecognized, assumptions the person makes about the difference between him/herself and other people, but I do not want to speculate on those here. Those may need to be resolved too in order for excessive guilt feelings in this kind of case to be resolved. 

Logic may help resolve a different, rather typical, kind of case of self-inflicted undeserved guilt. Many people mistakenly equate "bad consequences" with "wrong action". Not all actions that result in bad things are wrong actions. If one, through no fault of his own, is forced to have to choose between only bad options, one may simply have to choose and do the lesser of (two) evils. Doing so will be the right act, particularly if there is a great difference between the amount of evil among the acts. Yet it may still be unpleasant or disappointing to have had to do any bad thing at all. Yelling at, spanking, or otherwise punishing a willfully disobedient child may sometimes be necessary to help the child be safe or develop proper character; but it is difficult sometimes for parents to inflict such punishment; and they feel guilty about doing it. One may have to fire an employee, or a coach might have to cut or bench a ballplayer. One may have to disappoint either one's mother or one's wife if they have mutually exclusive requests. One may have to kill someone else in self-defense, go to war in a just war. Etc., etc.; there are many, many situations that are "no win" situations in that no matter what one does, some bad will occur. But if one does what one can to ameliorate the pain or the evil -- e.g., show a child you love him even though you are meting out a punishment he needs and has earned; help laid-off employees find other appropriate jobs, as at least one local company does in a very extensive way; etc. -- then one should not feel guilty, since one is not doing wrong even though one is causing something bad to happen (since one is also preventing something worse from happening by doing so). One might feel unhappy about the options and unhappy about having to do anything painful to another, but that unhappiness is not guilt. Obviously a doctor who has to give a painful injection to a frightened child should not feel guilty about doing so. One should simply not necessarily equate doing bad or painful things with doing wrong things; and it is only wrong things that one can be guilty for. 

Another, somewhat frequent mistake people make is to think all wrong acts are somehow preventable or the result of negligence or irrationality. That is simply not true. To take some games first as examples. One might very reasonably bet a great deal on a straight poker hand of four kings. Yet, though that is a reasonable bet, it is the wrong bet to make if one's opponent holds four aces. Oppositely a bluff on a worthless hand may actually work, and thus be the right play, even though it may be a very irrational play. In baseball, a manager might make any of a number of rational, or more probable, choices only to have them turn out to be the wrong choice; or he may do something totally irrational and stupid only to have it turn out by luck to be the right move. In everyday life situations one might do something that is perfectly rational yet still turn out to be wrong. Government foreign policy choices or economic programs have frequently been both rational and erroneous. One might buy one's spouse what one is sure is the perfect birthday present only to have it turn out to be the wrong thing to give. One might be sure it is safe to proceed through an intersection, only to get hit by a car approaching from a place where one could not have seen it. A jury might convict, and a state might punish the wrong person on virtually certain, but simply mistaken, evidence. A person might give or take a flu shot only to cause or get Gian- Baray (sp?) syndrome. Very little in life is guaranteed certain; and any of the most perfectly rational and highly probably decisions or actions could end up being wrong. You might be responsible for such actions and decisions but not very blameworthy -- not blameworthy in the sense of being evil, mean, selfish, irresponsible, negligent, lazy, careless, inattentive, etc. In these cases you are guilty in the sense merely of having done the wrong thing, not in the sense of deserving condemnation and/or punishment. There should be no or minor guilt feelings in such cases.

Guilt Inflicted by Others

Sometimes other people inflict guilt feelings on you that you would otherwise not have felt. Sometimes they do that in the above kind of case because they do not understand such cases or are just mean or are hurt themselves, or whatever. Sometimes they do it in cases where you actually have done something wrong that you have no good excuse for and that is more than just a natural or reasonable error; but they hold you more reprehensible or blameworthy, or condemn you far more, than your wrong actually merits. The way they do this is what is interesting. People inflict guilt feelings on others usually by pointing to mistakes or wrongs as some sort of character flaw. A tells B that B did not just forget to do something, but that B never listens, or B is lazy, or B is stupid, or B is negligent, or B does not concentrate enough, or B doesn't really love A.... A tells B that B did not just make a mistake but that B is inattentive, B is stupid, B is careless, B is thoughtless, B is cruel, B is selfish, etc., etc. It is these character assessments that tend to be damaging to B if B is apt to believe them. And sometimes, if they are frequent enough, or if one is a child or inexperienced person who might not know better, one might tend to believe the person making the criticism. The criticism may be uncalled for. People do sometimes make isolated mistakes without it being some sign of a deep, continuous character flaw. I just wrote a paper about humor and in one spot I noticed I spelled it "humerous" inadvertently. I do not use my computer's [then] cumbersome spelling checker all the time, but it points out some possible spelling errors in a totally non-condemning (non-judgmental) way. But imagine a computer program spelling checker that said things like "This word is spelled wrong, you dumbshit!" Or "this is the second time this paper you have misspelled this word; don't you ever use the dictionary!" Or "You misspelled this word last week and I pointed it out to you then; don't you pay attention to anything I say!" These are essentially the kinds of implications the writer, James Kilpatrick, in the Sunday paper makes every time he castigates people for errors they make in print. He seems to think all grammatical errors and spelling errors are signs of deep-seated carelessness or ignorance or something. He seems to think "mistake" and "stupid mistake" or "irresponsible mistake" are always synonymous, at least in regard to spelling and/or grammar. I do not. I would hate for him to be my English teacher or my parent. He could inflict lots of unwarranted guilt on the improperly receptive person. 

However, as Jim C. said to me in a phone conversation, there is a real sense of "oughtness" or obligation that people should have about things being right or wrong. And if someone consistently ignores one's obligations, or seems to ignore them intentionally, a properly proportioned sense of guilt perhaps ought to be inflicted upon them, if nothing less makes them take their moral mistakes properly seriously. Not all guilt or guilt feelings are excessive or unwarranted or undesirable. Some educational computer programs err on the side of being too "forgiving". I saw one the other day, where every time the kid made a mistake he was given the multiple choice over again and again until he got it right. Then when all the answers were completed the computer said "Congratulations, you have got 100% right." Wrong! My five-year-old has always been very meticulous about computer game or educational programs and tries very hard to answer each question right the first time. She does not cry or feel too terrible or anything if she makes a mistake, but she simply likes to be right the first time and gets mildly and very temporarily upset with herself if she misses. But her younger sister, since there is no real substantial penalty for giving the wrong answer, will sometimes just push buttons of any sort till she happens to hit the right one. When she is in that mood, I shut the computer off because I do not want her to get (or keep) the idea that it does not matter what you think or do. I do not want her to become compulsive (fat chance of that, I think, anyway) but I do not want her to be totally unconcerned about trying to apply herself. I want her to try to do things correctly the first time, with proper forethought and with the acceptance of responsibility for her actions and their consequences. 

Now one can always be wrong about whether someone is just making a mistake or is being wicked or negligent or selfish or lazy or whatever; but sometimes I think you can tell or have a pretty good clue. Mistakes should just be treated as that; character assessments should only be made in very clear or very crucial cases. Perhaps when one is not perfectly sure, one should always give the other person the benefit of the doubt about his character and just address what you think is the mistake. One can always make character judgments later, but it is hard to take one back after you have wrongly hurt someone's feelings, or -- to some people -- made them feel unnecessarily guilty or inferior. Recently I talked to one of the wives here who goes to the church's women's meetings, Tapestries, about what they talk about. They talk about why their husbands cannot do things right that they ask them to do, such as cleaning the house. (To parody My Fair Lady, "Why can't a man be more like a woman?") I told her I thought that was not peculiar to wives and husbands but toward any effort to delegate responsibility. If you want a task done exactly the way you want it done (right or wrong), do it yourself or spell it out in infinite detail (though that may be impossible for anyone to follow anyway). Otherwise just accept the help you get and don't fret over it and don't assume every difference is a sign of laziness or ineptness, a malicious attempt at sabotage or rebellion, or a symbolic statement of resentment. 

The word judgmental kept arising the other night, and was used pejoratively. There is a difference between being pejoratively judgmental and being accurately discriminating in judgment. Part of the difference is sticking to what the facts themselves allow you to conclude. If you are sure someone has made a mistake, it is one thing to say that tactfully; but if you unfairly and irrationally assume the (supposed) mistake says something in general about their character or how they arrived at their conclusion in this particular case, you are being pejoratively judgmental. It is one thing to say "I don't think that answer is right." It is another to say "You must be crazy (or lazy or stupid or uncaring) to think that...." Pointing out important errors or differences of opinion is often valuable; and some people appreciate your ideas or advice -- particularly if you keep them from repeating or compounding mistakes. The owner of the color photography lab that I use sometimes will have a problem with the quality of the prints the lab delivers. He always (and this is part of the reason I use them) appreciates having legitimate problems called to his attention so that he can get things corrected in the rather complicated process at the earliest possible moment, so that the lab has the fewest possible bad prints to have to re-make. Two other labs I have dealt with in the past don't like to hear about their problems and do not accept responsibility for the mistakes those problems cause; and they do not generally do the work over right for you. 

Now one does not have to make a damaging character assessment explicitly in order to imply such an assessment and cause torment. Parents may point out that a child has never finished anything he has started -- pointing to piano lessons, tennis lessons, school work, various jobs, etc.; making the child feel lazy or unpersevering, etc., when actually the child may be quite persevering about things that he likes or feels are really worthwhile. Few of us persevere in areas that are totally unrewarding and that we feel are difficult and have no real merit. Most times it is reasonable not to persevere in such endeavors. A child who is continually reminded only of his supposed "failures" or of his unfinished projects may forget about his successes and times he has persevered, or their importance may be diminished in his own mind. 

Similarly one might overreact in anger to a supposed mistake, and though one does not make direct verbal character condemnations, one gets that message across. Sometimes that can inflict (needless or excessive) guilt feelings, but sometimes it is so obvious, that it does not, as in the case about stacking dishes. Or one might mope about, whine, cry, jump out a window, give the silent treatment or cold shoulder, (uncontrollably) swear, etc. to express disappointment or condemnation. These reactions can make a person who already feels bad enough about an error he has made then feel absolutely terrible. If the reaction of tears, cold shoulder, suicide, etc. are actually unjustified reactions -- overreactions -- the additional bad feelings they inflict are undeserved. 

The reverse of all this -- understandingly, compassionately, caringly, lovingly, and/or tactfully and gently, pointing out mistakes or wrongs that need to be dealt with -- can help a sensitive person avoid unnecessary and unwarranted guilt feelings, and can even help an insensitive person regret, apologize for, and sometimes even redress or correct, mistakes or wrongs. Just pointing out a mistake to a sensitive person is often sufficient to make him/her atone for it -- regret, repent, redress, rehabilitate, as described in the "Deserving Forgiveness" section above. The trick with sensitive people is not to inflict excessive guilt and not to destroy their confidence or self-esteem or their belief in your confidence in them and your regard for them and for their general ability. Sometimes one has to really stress to such people how highly one does regard them and how unreasonable it is to expect perfection of anyone, and how you know they are not careless or irresponsible or stupid, etc. but simply made a mistake. One older man I used to play a lot of tennis doubles with and against before I finally just could not take it any more used to practically turn apoplectic if his partner made a mistake on the court. He never noticed his own mistakes. If you ever misplayed one at the net and had to incur his wrath, it made it almost impossible to hit the next one at the net because you weren't sure what was going to happen behind you if you blew it. I find that I play doubles far better if I have an understanding partner than one who is not understanding; in fact I then play well over my head. And whenever I get an excessively apologetic partner who effusively apologizes for what is simply a misplayed shot, I try to calm his guilt and fears with statements like "It's okay; I'll bet you didn't do it on purpose," or "Don't worry; if you played everything perfectly you'd be on the pro tour." 

If you want someone to correct an error, but it is someone who you know will probably defensively not admit or correct one pointed out to him (or that he has noticed himself) -- even if you don't question or condemn his ability or character in general -- sometimes what you have to do is to claim you (or someone else) must have made the mistake. One of my wife's high level supervisors denied a very reasonable request she had made. I called him, believing he would be very angry and defensive if I simply argued with him, and said that I believed she must have not stated her request clearly or properly enough for him to have not been able to see it should have been accepted -- that what she really meant was .... He agreed that was a legitimate request and that it was not clear the first time and that she should simply resubmit it to him. It was clear the first time; but this worked fine. Patricia did not mind that I had to act as if she were inept in order for her to get her way. That was fortunate in this case, and it was fortunate that it worked. False, or even real, humility does not always work or is not always called for. When I was a college counselor (in the North) while a graduate student, I often got problems of my students solved by forcefully but, hopefully, politely and rationally arguing with department heads about the merits of the student's request and how they could and should help the student resolve the unwarranted obstacles he was facing. That worked when humility probably would just have got you politely ignored. It is not always very easy to guess ahead of time what approach is likely to be best received, because it is not always easy to know whether you are dealing with a sensitive person who simply needs to be made aware of the facts or an insensitive person whose ego needs to be stroked regardless of the facts. 

Finally, it seems to me that once one has made a mistake or done something wrong, he, by definition, is simply always guilty of having made it or done it. But that in itself is not usually so terrible or reprehensible (at least not in reparable and non- catastrophic situations). If you add up a column of numbers wrong the first or second time, you simply made a mistake. If you yelled at your spouse or child when you did not mean to, and apologize and explain it was your fault right away, you still made a mistake and are "guilty" of that, but it is not hard to admit to, nor is it some sort of painful knowledge to have or burden to carry. We often recount without pain past screw-ups we have committed. Sometimes we even recount them humorously and with a certain amount of self-ridicule. To be guilty of something is simply to have done something wrong that one should not have. It does not say anything about the person other than that he did wrong. Now, forgiveness does not erase the wrong, but it takes the sting or excessive and unwarranted recriminations out of it. So, in order for one not to feel excessive guilt (feelings) one has to forgive himself, and in order to do that one needs to deserve forgiveness, as I described in the "Deserving Forgiveness" paper -- assuming that paper is correct; if it is not correct in its specifics, I still believe there is some correct version of what is required to deserve forgiveness from others; and that is what probably is also required to deserve forgiveness from oneself. When one deserves forgiveness, one deserves it from oneself and from others equally. Following the forgiveness criteria I gave, one who requires or expects too much of himself needs to understand some errors are simply human and need to be expected. Humans are rarely perfect even when they try very hard to be. One should forgive oneself for certain kinds of human, understandable mistakes or miscalculations. Because we are often more understanding of others than we are of ourselves, I repeat here that, I believe a sensitive person's companions to the Golden Rule ought to be "Do unto yourself as you would do unto others" or "Do unto yourself as you would have others do unto themselves." 

In cases where one did something wrong that is not a forgivable understandable, "human" mistake, one then needs to atone for it in order to deserve forgiveness -- one needs to recognize and regret it, repent (apologize) for it, redress it and/or repay it, and genuinely try not to do it again, all as explained in that paper. Those things at least prevent compounding and/or continuation of the original wrong. 

Harder cases are where an inexcusable wrong is irreparable and/or catastrophic. I said in the "Deserving Forgiveness" paper that such wrongs are always unforgivable. But I should have added I do not think people who commit them are always deserving of continuous condemnation or reprehension. In some cases, for example, if a person genuinely repents, particularly without any coercion, and tries to somehow compensate the world, though not the particular victim, for the past wrong, particularly at some sacrifice, then perhaps no further punishment or continued condemnation is warranted. For example, suppose someone commits a murder when he is young, but on his own sees the error of his ways and devotes his life to saving other people, such as in heroic fire-fighting situations. In some very real sense that person has become a "new man"; that is, his present character does not deserve the censure and disapprobation that his former character did. He might join you and society in condemning his former character; but that character does not represent his present or total "self" and so, although (the present) "he" is still guilty of the original murder, (the present) "he" is no longer blameworthy or reprehensible. One is not perhaps forgiving him when one discontinues condemning him, though I admit this may be forcing a distinction on the actual use of the word forgiveness where no such distinction necessarily exists. The distinctions are important -- (1) the distinction of new "self" versus old "self" when the two are morally different characters, and (2) the distinction between being guilty (i.e., simply having done something wrong) and being (continuingly) blameworthy or reprehensible or worthy of condemnation. But how one ought to apply the words "forgivable, forgiven, forgive, deserving forgiveness" in such cases may be more a matter of future stipulation than of recognition of normal past and present usage. Normal usage of forgiveness and its derivatives may not usually take the above distinctions into account and so may be vague or ambiguous. We might consider ceasing to condemn the repentant wrongdoer of an irreparable harm to be forgiving him. Or we might speak of the repentant wrongdoer of an irreparable wrong as one who deserves mercy but for whom forgiveness cannot apply. The important thing is to understand what we are doing, and to be able to spell it out when necessary, regardless of the abbreviated way we might express it in general.

Forgiving and Forgetting
With all these various distinctions and cases in mind, it might be that we can clear up the problem of the relationship between forgiving and forgetting. Clearly, forgetting does not require forgiving since one can easily, and unintentionally, forget someone has victimized them (e.g., forget that a particular customer, of all their many customers, was the one who passed a bad check many years ago) without forgiving them for doing it, if and when they remember. The important question is whether forgiving requires forgetting. I think the answer depends on one additional distinction -- distinguishing different uses of the vague or ambiguous notion of "forgetting" in this case. If a person has truly atoned (4 R's) for a reparable wrong then he deserves forgiveness and deserves to be treated just as if he had never done the wrong in the first place. One should forget about his past "character" or past deserving of distrust and condemnation. That is, one should no longer condemn or distrust his "present" self. However that does not mean one needs to, or could if one wanted to, forget (i.e., "clean" from memory) the past harm itself or that the person did it. One's memory of simple facts is not within one's control. One does not just expunge or "clear" memories at will -- as a computer or calculator can. Telling someone who feels excessively guilty about some, perhaps trivial, wrong he has committed to "forget about it" simply means not to worry about it or not to be concerned about it or not to condemn or chastise oneself for it; it does not mean he should wipe the mistake out of his memory as if he had never done it; and it does not mean he should not have learned from it nor learned not to repeat it nor watch out for making it again in a similar situation. "Forget it" in such cases means to forget about blaming or punishing your present character or to forget about spending time having remorse about the character you have changed from; it does not mean to forget about what caused the act or might cause it again if one is not careful. 

Of course, one might not feel another has atoned and so one might not only not forget and not trust him again, but one then has also not forgiven him in the first place. It is hard to know sometimes whether another genuinely has atoned (4 R's) or not. In such a case, one might show or grant mercy -- not punish -- the other person in case he has actually atoned (all 4 R's), but one might not trust him yet because one is not sure whether the other person has been rehabilitated or not. One therefore has "forgotten" about punishing, but not about distrusting. That is a reasonable course of action when one is not sure the other has actually atoned (4 R's) even if he may have professed to all 4 R's. 

Similar arguments apply in some irreparable cases where the other person has done all the R's he can -- regret, rehabilitate, and, if possible repent (i.e., apologize). One might forget about punishment or continued condemnation or distrust, but not expunge from memory the deed or hatred for character like the past character. 

Finally, one might forgive, say a child, for an understandable mistake the child makes without thereby thinking it will not happen again under similar circumstances. Hence, one has to remember one's child might run and possibly fall with a stick (pen, pencil, sucker, etc.) in his mouth, fall off a curb, spill milk, eat candy he sees on the ground or on someone's coffee table, might break china in a china shop, etc. In fact, responsible parents forgive and should not forget -- at least not forget until they are sure the child has finally learned. Similarly, I forgive drivers who inadvertently pull out in front of me, but I always watch for drivers to do that. It would be stupid to forget that oneself and others can make mistakes and to drive as if no one ever simply makes a driving error, forgivable or otherwise.

"Psychiatric" Guilt

I wonder whether people who understand and appreciate the kind of distinctions in logic about guilt and the related terms that I have attempted to make here (or their correctly stated counterparts where I have erred) would feel either the neurotic or the existential guilt psychiatrists describe, or whether those kinds of guilt flow from a certain kind of personality, sensitivity, or genetic character or whatever in combination with a misunderstanding of the logic of (the concept of) guilt and its related concepts. Would understanding these concepts better eliminate neurotic and existential guilt?

3) In Response to a Discussion About Feeling Guilty

Last week's discussion was very stimulating to me and it helped me afterward crystallize some ideas I would like to share because I think the topic of guilt and guilt feelings and how to resolve them in everyday life is very important. But I think first you have to know whether it is feelings of guilt or feelings that have a different origin and require a different resolution -- even though they feel like feelings of guilt. It is not very different from feeling you are suffocating when instead you are hyperventilating. Giving oxygen to a hyperventilator will exacerbate his condition, not alleviate it, even though he feels like he needs oxygen. One cannot be wrong about how one feels; but one can be wrong about what one feels or what the cause of it is. 

I want to discuss two of the cases raised: the feeling of "guilt" about not spending time with all the people you feel like you should, and the hypothetical case of the woman whose husband was transgressing. First, the spending insufficient time case. 

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry said it best: "A man's got to know his limitations." The question last week about feeling guilty about not spending enough time with children, wife, other people, doing your job, etc. is not a question of guilt but of adequacy. And it is a different mindset to resolve to be more adequate (or to be better) and to try to figure out how to do it, than it is to simply sit around "feeling" guilty over something you cannot even identify, and for which you probably are not really to blame. "Stewing" over something is a different mindset from trying to figure out how to correct it or make amends for it or prevent it from happening again. 

Further, if something really is a limitation -- one that cannot be eliminated and is not a character flaw -- one does not feel guilty about it, though one might be unhappy about it in a way that feels like feeling guilty. In ethics, the maxim is that "ought implies can", meaning that one can only be obligated to do that which he can possibly do; one is not ever morally obligated to do what is impossible. Honestly assessing your limitations can (1) relieve a lot of burdens (guilt feelings) by letting you know you have been stewing about the impossible, and (2) can help you see how and where you might be able to make some kind of improvement, or at least voice honest feelings of regret (though not remorse) to those you feel you are letting down where improvement is not possible. 

Sometimes we compare ourselves with some ideal person, or with some person who perhaps is more talented in a given area. There is no harm in feeling less gifted or inadequate in such a comparison -- that is simply an accurate assessment of facts; the harm comes in feeling guilty about it, in feeling we should be better than we can be, in feeling we should be as good or as competent as the ideal or the other person. But that is to feel we have a moral obligation to be better than we can be. And we don't. We only have the moral obligation to be as good as we can be. One day I helped one stranded motorist change a tire; I drove a second stranded person to a gas station (she was out of gas), but left her for them to take her back to her car because I was starting to run late; and then I saw a third stranded motorist in no immediate danger, and with plenty of traffic around for her to get help. I had a class to teach and felt my obligation was to get there on time in this particular case. I did not feel guilty about ignoring the last motorist. Well, similarly with wives, children, customers, etc. One can only do the best one can -- or try, and try to improve to be one's best as one grows. You then do not worry or fret over what you simply cannot do. 

In many areas inadequacy presents no problem. You study really hard all through school and you take your SAT's which are really hard, and you get 1400 out of 1600 and you have a really high score, but not a perfect score. Well, you are proud of the 1400, not "guilty" you couldn't get 1600. In the early 1970's Jimmy Connors played one of the best matches of tennis, during his prime, I have ever seen, in the finals of the U.S. Open; he was really driving every ball hard and hitting the lines and the corners. It was amazing. But his opponent was Manuel Orantes that day, a gifted but not great player, and Orantes played like a madman, getting to everything, hitting it back, playing so far over his head that everyone knew his playing so great wouldn't last long. But it did. It lasted the whole match. The harder Connors played and the better he hit the ball, the better Orantes hit is back. Connors lost. He accepted his second place award and when asked to describe the match to the assembled crowd, he smiled with this twinkle in his eye, looked up and said, with a tone of amazement and admiration "Sheeee-it". The crowd cracked up. It was obvious that he knew he had played virtually perfectly, but that day he was beaten by a man who simply played better. No guilt about not trying hard enough, about choking, about not practicing enough, about not having the right attitude, or any of those things. Nothing he could have done that day, or in preparation, would have helped. He was simply aware that that day he was inadequate to win and that he had played practically as well as anyone could play the game. No remorse; no regret. The crowd had gotten more than its money's worth; he was proud to have been a part of that. 

They asked the super-competitive Pete Rose how it felt to lose the sixth game of the 1975 Reds-Red Sox World Series -- often called one of the greatest and most exciting and dramatic baseball games ever played -- and his reply, with the series now in doubt, was "Heck, it was such a thrill to be a part of such a game, it was hard to feel too bad about losing it. Sure, we would have liked to win; but it was just incredible being a part of that. We'll just try to play better today." That is a totally different mindset from someone who would have felt guilty about not getting a hit or making some super play at some point during the game. 

And I think that is important. That is why I kept harping on the fact that an unwarranted "feeling of guilt" is not the same thing as being guilty. If you are guilty about something (i.e., have done something wrong that you should not have) there are steps you have to take to try to remedy or make up for the wrong you have done; but if you are not guilty, but are simply afraid, or are inadequate, or improperly experienced, or unknowledgeable, than there are other steps you need to take to try to improve. The first thing, though, is accurately identifying the feeling and the problem. Feeling remorse when instead you should be seeing how to improve your knowledge or your tennis game is inappropriate; just as not making an apology for an actual wrong for which you are to blame is inappropriate. 

[The following refers to the case of a woman in the 1960's whose husband was emotionally quite cruel in a number of ways to her, including openly committing adultery.  She eventually had a brief, or one-time affair with someone who was very kind to her, and years later still "felt guilty" about her affair.]
The case Scott brought up of the woman incapacitated by feelings of guilt is, I think, a case in point.    Perhaps: she is not incapacitated by feelings of guilt but by feelings she mistakes for (feelings of) guilt. This is not just semantics, but is the crux of the problem. Because she thinks she feels simply guilty and knows she cannot undue the mistake she made and continues, (perhaps necessarily and justifiably) to hide, she is unable to see that she really has other feelings that are troubling and incapacitating her, and it is those feelings that she needs to resolve and probably can. She is trying to resolve guilt because she thinks she "feels guilty"; but she probably does not feel guilty (primarily) -- primarily she probably feels anxious, afraid of losing her husband altogether, undeserving, "messed up", confused, lonely, disappointed by her husband, unloved, hypocritical about his and her own behavior (double standard), etc, etc. (She may have felt guilt shortly after her own affair -- but more than likely that was not incapacitating or destructive; it is her feelings about her husband's present affairs that are incapacitating and destroying her; they may remind her of her guilt and her affair, but the memory of those things is not incapacitating, since the things themselves were originally not incapacitating.) What she needs to understand in her head is exactly what the feelings in her heart (or "gut") are. That is not just an intellectual exercise. It helps one work toward resolving the right feelings in the right way. Scott said she understands in her head she is not guilty, but I doubt she does understand that. Scott kept saying "but she feels guilty, and that is what matters." But I maintain that she does not feel guilty; she only feels like she feels guilty; that is, she only thinks she feels guilty, or she only thinks she has guilt. It is like a person who hyperventilates and who feels like he cannot breathe, so he breathes harder, which aggravates the problem. To solve the problem he has to hold his breath or breathe carbon dioxide. Hyperventilating may feel like suffocating, but it is not; and it is important to recognize the difference, regardless of how it feels. And you don't make the person feel better by giving him oxygen just because he feels like he needs it. Feeling anxiety (or a whole host of other things) may feel like feeling guilty, but it is important to understand the difference before you can recognize the difference. I am not sure Scott or others really see the difference at this point, so I hardly imagine the woman sees it. 

Further, she may believe it is necessary to condemn her husband for his indiscretion, but knows it would be hypocritical to do so; hence, frustration and inaction. But condemnation may not be appropriate anyway; understanding may be; and simply asking him to stop his behavior, with compassion and forgiveness for him for it. Perhaps. Worrying about stifling hypocrisy because of one's own guilt can be causing needless anxiety, frustration, and paralysis. One does not have to confess one's similar behavior to tell someone else they understand and forgive their present behavior and would like to help them stop it. At any rate, there are a whole lot of things here that may be happening (and need to be resolved and healed) that have absolutely nothing to do with guilt or past mistakes, but which are not recognized because mistakenly dwelling on the past guilt camouflages the issue. I am not saying there is no such things as guilt or guilty feelings; I am saying that sometimes there are things more important than guilt feelings which are mistaken for them, but whose cause and cure are different from them. To lump all these feelings as guilt feelings and treat them as that could be to make a mistake that precludes cure. 

And contrary to what Scott or many modern psychologists might claim, I don't believe that simple "gut level" reactions are especially helpful; they are perhaps wrong or harmful more often than they are right and/or beneficial. The hyperventilator's gut level reaction is to breathe harder. Gut level reactions to lust can cause inappropriate pregnancies or destroy marriages. Being natural does not make reactions right any more than does eating with your fingers, because it is natural, make that right. Some situations, for example, might be right for you to vent your spleen in raging anger; but some situations are better for you to act in a more controlled way even though you feel rage. Judgment (in your head) is what is called for, not judgment in your stomach. Sometimes you even have to act enraged when you don't feel it, because the other person will respond more sympathetically to your rage than to your controlled complaints. When it is right to explode in rage has nothing to do with how such an explosion feels to you; it has to do with whether or not rage helps resolve the situation, and the probability of that depends on your knowledge, not your feelings. Your feelings are the same when rage is helpful and when rage is not helpful. Such situations, as many situations, are often difficult to know what to do; but I doubt that difficulty absolves one from thinking and just "reacting at gut level"; I would think it means thinking harder or working harder to know what is right. Hell, you can always explode at someone after you have thought about it -- appropriate explosions do not have to come immediately upon the first notice of a transgression. I think mental understanding of our feelings is more important than simple reaction to them. And I think guilt "feelings" are particularly important to understand and to be able to distinguish from feelings which "feel" the same but which are very very different in both their logic and their origin, and therefore in what it takes to resolve them.

-- Richard Garlikov

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I had a student once who still felt guilty about something he had done as a child.  He had taken a wagon through the alley of his neighborhood and had searched people's trash for "returnable" soft drink bottles they had thrown away.  At the time, these bottles were redeemed by merchants for five cents each.  My student used to feel, and still felt guilty, about doing this because he felt that he was stealing.  The rest of us did not feel he had been stealing at all, and thought that he had nothing about which to feel guilty.  I believe that at the time he was doing this activity, he may have been embarrassed about being caught, or he may have had fear about getting caught going through people's trash, but having such fear is not the same thing as "feeling guilty", and it does not signify one is doing something wrong; e.g., in this case, stealing.  Often, but not always, one can distinguish the two feelings in retrospect, though not at the time.  In retrospect, fear of getting caught may disappear as the danger passes (or after one has actually been caught), whereas feelings of guilt do not.  While my student had got over any fear of being caught at the time he told this story, he still felt guilty, however.  But I believe that was because he had let his fear at the time make him feel that he was actually doing something wrong; and he still "felt" that way even though he no longer felt any fear about being caught. (Return to text.)

The Golden Rule has many different possible interpretations, but normally it is misapplied by even well-intentioned people. The problem with the normal interpretation of the rule is two-fold: (1) other people may not want to be done unto the way you would. Just because a parent wishes someone had made him study engineering at college does not mean he should make his child study engineering; the child may not be suited for it. Or, just because some guy wishes a particular girl would come over to him and rub her body against his, does not mean he should do that to her. (2) Even if people do want the same things, it may still not be right for either one of them. A thirteen year old's teaching a friend to smoke or sharing drugs with him does not make it right even if that is what they both would want the other to do for them. So my suggested "companions" to the Golden Rule are not meant to be taken literally, because they can be misapplied too; they are simply meant to serve as a possible perspective for the particular context of where a sensitive, or overly-sensitive, person is more demanding of himself than he would be of anyone else and more demanding of himself than he thinks anyone else should be of themselves. (Return to text.)

The Golden Rule has many different possible interpretations, but normally it is misapplied by even well-intentioned people. The problem with the normal interpretation of the rule is two-fold: (1) other people may not want to be done unto the way you would. Just because a parent wishes someone had made him study engineering at college does not mean he should make his child study engineering; the child may not be suited for it. Or, just because some guy wishes a particular girl would come over to him and rub her body against his, does not mean he should do that to her. (2) Even if people do want the same things, it may still not be right for either one of them. A thirteen year old's teaching a friend to smoke or sharing drugs with him does not make it right even if that is what they both would want the other to do for them. So my suggested "companions" to the Golden Rule are not meant to be taken literally, because they can be misapplied too; they are simply meant to serve as a possible perspective for the particular context of where a sensitive, or overly-sensitive, person is more demanding of himself than he would be of anyone else and more demanding of himself than he thinks anyone else should be of themselves. (Return to text.)

"Regret" can mean either of two things,and it is important to understand the difference. Regret, in the sense of sorrow or sadness over something's occurring can be felt or expressed even in cases where one had nothing to do with it, as when one expresses regret that a friend had a flat tire at an inconvenient time or that he didn't land some contract or that his favorite team lost the championship. A friend of mine hates when after she has said "I'm sorry" to someone who has recounted some tale of woe, they say "Oh, dear, it wasn't your fault." Depending on the circumstances, she will usually say "I know. That was meant as an expression of regret [or sympathy], not an apology." 

It is particularly important to understand the difference between feeling regret as sorrow over some sad occurrence and feeling regret as remorse over having done something wrong, because otherwise one may (think they) feel "guilty" about something they really only feel sad about. Many "false" feelings of guilt arise in this way. As when a parent regrets a child's having pain or a reaction from a DPT shot and then confuses sorrow about the pain with guilt about having done the wrong thing to take the child for the shot. (Return to text.)