I was discussing guilt with a group of friends. I mentioned an incident, small, but it bothers me to this day.
I was about four. Playing with another little girl, I felt the need to exhibit my power or perhaps just show off. Another playmate, a little boy about two came over to play with us. I ordered him away, told him we didn’t want him. He raced off in tears.
To this day, I feel guilty about hurting that little child. I knew immediately that I had done wrong. No adults intervened. I remember nothing about Bible lessons or feeling guilty because God knew what I had done. What I felt was sadness within me at causing hurt. The little boy had come to us, trusting that we would accept him, and I had let him know that we would not accept him.
The incident, you might say, is trivial. The sort of thing children do to each other.
No, I chose to do wrong, and guilt was the proper response. I think the guilt taught me to be aware of another’s feelings, to be attuned to their need to be valued. In other words, guilt led to growth.
Guilt has a bad reputation. Sometimes immature individuals cause harm by inducing guilt in inappropriate ways or for trivial causes. Sometimes inducing guilt is a way of hate that wrecks people’s lives.
Perhaps guilt is like wealth. Wealth can be used to destroy people’s lives, too. It can take advantage of the vulnerable. But sometimes wealth can do good, as when a wealthy person contributes part of that wealth to search for solutions to hunger or disease.
Guilt is one of those two-edged swords, with possibilities that cut both ways.
Ann Gaylia O'Barr, author of Singing in Babylon, Searching for Home, Quiet Deception and Distant Thunder (all OakTara), was a Foreign Service Officer in the United States Department of State from 1990 to 2004. Assignments included tours in U.S. embassies and consulates in Saudi Arabia (Jeddah and Dhahran), Algeria, Canada, Tunisia, and Washington, D.C. (Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and Bureau of Intelligence and Research).