Guilt has become a term for psychological or emotional disorder rather than what it actually is, which is responsibility for one’s acts, decisions, choices. As a neurosis, it allows you to be the hero of some emotional melodrama in which you are plagued by feelings of guilt and must go on some heroic quest to redeem yourself, or, more often, feel victimized by your guilt and spend your life fleeing responsibility and feeling sorry for yourself. This kind of guilt is very popular—and profitable for writers of film scripts and pop fiction. People who see themselves as the hero of the stuff they read or watch can usually find some deed they’ve done in order to feel heroic guilt. Inauthentic guilt is very popular.
It’s also popular because of its usefulness. I remember sitting next to a drunk at a bar who engaged me in conversation (attempted pickup). Slobbering over his whiskey and blubbering about some bad deed he’d done, he’d put his hands over his eyes and try to muster tears as he ordered another drink. Without guilt, where would an addict find the strength to go on? He runs like the wind from anything that even resembles forgiveness. His fake guilt is precious to him, like Gollum’s ring.
Inauthentic guilt has the advantage of being impersonal—and even superstitious: I am rich, successful, and I didn’t have to suffer deprivation or struggle much to get what I have. I have to be worthy of my wealth so that I can keep it–and so that other people who haven’t had my good fortune won’t be envious and take it from me. So, I give zillions to charity and make my generosity well known. Then people will approve of my being wealthy—and besides, I can write it off and avoid income tax. Even better, if I’m famous, I can make television and media appearances in which I show my unselfishness and keep my money as I urge other people to give up theirs. Assumed guilt can be very useful.
It can also be impersonal by not being singular, but collective: I know I never personally participated in the sins committed by my class/race/gender/religion in the past, but those who were victimized by members of my class/race/gender/religion are angry about it. I can protect myself from their anger by denouncing all the members of my class/race/gender/religion. I’ll assume guilt for what they’ve done and be safe from the anger. I’ll even become politically popular.
Guilt is useful in so many ways. It’s no wonder finger-pointing at oneself is so popular. Of course, none of it is true, but that doesn’t matter compared to its usefulness. Take interactions between persons. They say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” That’s not an apology. It’s a denial of responsibility, much like “I never meant to hurt you.” (You got in my way. That’s not my fault.) The difference between an apology and a defense is discovered in pronouns: “I’m sorry you —” is a defense, and “I’m sorry I—” is an apology. Defense rejects responsibility; apology accepts it.
Real guilt isn’t popular. It’s usually denied, one way or another. Forty-odd years ago, a rabbi told me, “Sometimes, you feel guilty because you’re guilty.” And a few years ago, a priest said, “Stop analyzing your sins. You’re just making excuses.” Both men said the same thing. The truth is simple: “I’m sorry,” said out loud, sincerely and wholeheartedly, is like a candle in the darkness. Not saying it means you prefer that darkness. It’s what you chose over forgiveness.