by Michael Stuart Kelly
The following is based on an e-mail I sent to Barbara Branden when she made a comment to me about the distinction between guilt and remorse and how much she hated guilt.
I really liked her distinction between guilt and remorse. This caused a “click” in my mind and gave me words for something I have done in the past. I know quite a bit about guilt, redemption and forgiveness from what I have lived through in life. Unfortunately, I did not learn about it in Objectivism. I have noticed that the following is the way some people practice the philosophy: they encourage guilt to become embedded in their souls because the don’t forgive themselves for failings and the slow rot starts spreading until all joy in living is lost. This is recounted in case after case in the literature of people who have had a bad experience with Objectivism.
The purists simply say that they got the philosophy wrong, but that is nonsense. There are too many cases to ignore where people learned Objectivism backwards and forwards. Telling a person who is suffering that he did something wrong without telling him how to stop the suffering is completely worthless to him. Formulating a routine for implementing redemption from an Objectivist perspective is not only a good idea. It is sorely needed.
One of the strongest factors for a person to overcome guilt is for him to forgive himself. Then he should turn guilt into remorse so he can do something about it. But talk is cheap. The hard part is doing it.
One of the best manners I have come across for dealing with guilt is in the 12 steps of AA. This is a wonderful routine for getting a grip on the problem, fostering a desire to change, forgiving oneself, discharging the remorse, and maintaining the change. I don’t think places that deal with the 12 step program realize how much the focus is on eradicating guilt. They are aware, but they emphasize that getting rid of guilt is turning ones life over to a Higher Power. They transfer the responsibility instead of eliminate the error in thinking.
For example, below are the AA 12 steps with summary at top of each. This comes from a site called 12step.org.
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-- that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God AS WE UNDERSTOOD HIM.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God AS WE UNDERSTOOD HIM, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Carrying the message
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Admitting the problem
1. I admit I am powerless over a wrong moral choice I have made—that my life has become unmanageable.
2. I come to accept that reason is a power greater than any other in my life and that it can restore me to sanity.
3. I make a decision to turn my will over to reason.
Changing guilt into remorse and self-forgiveness
4. I make an honest, searching and fearless moral inventory of myself.
5. I admit to myself, and to one or more human beings, the exact nature of my wrongs without condemning my own worth as a human being.
6. I deepen my wish to remove all these defects of character through reason.
7. I humbly decide to use reason to remove my shortcomings as they arise, to accept myself as a worthy human being each time, and to start by forgiving myself for the past.
Cleaning up the past
8. I make a list of all persons I have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.
9. I make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure myself, them, or others.
10. I continue to take personal inventory and when I am wrong I promptly admit it.
11. I seek through study, introspection and meditation to improve my awareness of truth, seeking only for knowledge of wisdom and the power to act on it.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening to reason and self-love as the result of these steps, I try to carry this message to those who are suffering from guilt, and to practice these principles in all my affairs.
This procedure is not only very similar to what I went through to overcome both alcohol and crack addiction, it also has worked for other small failings I have had over the years. It is not a hard-and-fast routine. It can and must be adapted to suit the problem.
For example, obviously, you don’t need to do a full moral inventory if you do something silly like claim you have read the whole Bible to fake an image of erudition, then start covering that lie with others, and over the years get to the point where you claim you read it two times, then three times (which is one of the foolish things I did for some damn reason). But to overcome that problem, I had to admit that there was a problem, the problem was growing beyond my control, forgive myself, realize how ridiculous I was being toward myself and to others, and then change it. Years after finally adopting an attitude of “I will look it up when I don’t know,” I now look back on the effort that was needed to keep that lie in place and wonder what in hell I was doing.
I do remember the extreme discomfort I had on changing that particular defect. The discomfort did not vanish from one minute to the next. It gradually went away as I insisted on being absolutely honest. I especially made a point of telling the truth to people I had bragged to before. I was astonished that hardly anyone cared. That actually made my discomfort greater for a while (I think that came from realizing that I had been a dork all that time for no reason at all, since nobody ever was impressed or influenced at all with the faked knowledge).
I mention this case because the feeling is similar to what a person goes through to hide his addiction—and hide all the little lies that go with it, such as trying to get money pretending it is for something else other than the substance, trying to justify not showing up, trying to justify why something important wasn’t done and other things of this nature. An addict is extremely familiar with all this.
Getting out of discomfort and learning new behavior (especially in circumstances that were similar to the ones where the wrong thing was practiced) is what I call part of moral learning. This is the part that takes time.
I am not talking about the physical discomfort of withdrawal, although this is very real. The point here is behavior—learning a whole new approach to dealing with people—essentially not hiding the problem anymore or faking it. It is very uncomfortable to tell the truth where telling a lie has been a habit. The good news is that the discomfort does not last very long and the reward a person gains in feeling good about himself (especially as the discomfort abates) is enormous.
I think Objectivism needs an approach and environment for people who wish—and need—to forgive themselves. Notice that the ones who are the loudest in condemning others are precisely the ones whose lives are shot through and through with moral failings and compromises. They can fool everybody but the man who stands up and says, “I have had a problem and I have corrected it. I see you have the same problem I once had.” I think they live in mortal fear of that person.
But a truly selfish person is one who is concerned with overcoming his own problem. He is not so much concerned with the hypocrisy of others, although he notices it. Often he can’t help but notice it because the condemnation is so loud and the crowd gathered is so big. It is tragic when you desperately need advice and this is all you find, so the only way out is a church or religious-based recovery group. I mention this because so little is provided for addiction in Objectivism and what little is available is often flawed with oversimplification and wholesale condemnation.
But reason is most definitely a way out of guilt and addiction when the solution starts with self-forgiveness, i.e., relearning how to be selfish on the deepest level.