Is guilt harmful?
Question: Nowadays some people advise that feelings of guilt are just primitive cultural hangovers that stop us from enjoying life fully. Are they correct? Is guilt harmful?
Answer: Those who give such advice are harmful.
We feel a sense of guilt whenever we act against our conscience. Our conscience – the internal voice that inspires us to do good and to avoid bad – is a great gift from God. Let’s see how.
When we feel feverish, that feeling helps us know that dangerous germs are overcoming our immune system. Similarly, when we feel guilty, that feeling helps us know that self-defeating desires are overcoming our intelligence. If the fever is neglected or suppressed, then the germs may cause a complete health breakdown. Similarly, if the guilt is neglected or suppressed, then the self-defeating desires may cause a complete emotional and physical breakdown.
For example, in the current internet age, even small children have easy, unguarded access to sexually explicit images. Looking at obscene images may be initially pleasurable, but it soon gives rise to dangerous drives that may lead to abuse of one’s own and others’ bodies, as also to infection by deadly diseases. When children are mis-educated to neglect the guilt – the pinch of conscience – they feel on doing wrong things, these poor children become stripped of their inbuilt defense systems and soon become overpowered by devastating habits.
Of course, guilt can make people feel worthless and helpless – and indeed guilt is used by some fire and brimstone fundamentalists to scare people into conforming to their own notions of religion. But such self-seeking misuse of guilt by some people shouldn’t blind us to its indispensable use. Guilt – and the conscience that produces it – is ultimately meant to connect us with the universal principles that govern all human behavior and interactions. These principles, as explained in the God-given scriptures like the Bhagavad-gita, elevate our conscience from being culturally-determined to being divinely-determined. Then we can discriminate right from wrong based on not just our socio-cultural values but on time-tested universal principles.
When our conscience is thus alert, our guilt not only saves us from the suffering coming from self-damaging choices, but also points us to the happiness coming from self-strengthening choices. For example, a person with a healthy conscience will avoid visually exploiting other people’s bodies and feeling guilty and dissatisfied thereafter, but will instead visually feast on the all-attractive form of God manifested as the Deity and feel purified and satisfied. Similarly, in all our quests for happiness, our guilt and conscience can redirect us from temporary, unfulfilling surrogates to eternal, supremely fulfilling originals.
Therefore, instead of trying to get rid of the feeling of guilt, let’s get rid of the actions that cause that feeling.