the gift of guilt

Like a compass needle responding to a magnetic field, my mind contemplates suffering. Daily I ponder the latest word of human-wrought crises from sadly all-too-many signposts, in the words of a much-loved prayer, on “this fragile earth, our island home.”

Suffering’s appeal (if I dare call it that) is no perverse attraction, no schadenfreude-esque satisfaction in the afflictions of others, nor a boon to my “but for the grace of God, there am I” gratitude (if I ever entertained such, which I do not).

Rather, the pain of others taps into, tears open an inner, visceral wellspring of compassion. I hurt, especially for the powerless. Because (yes, somewhat self-centeredly) I feel powerless to stop the forces that oppress. Yet also (and, yes, equally self-focused) because I enjoy freedom to do as I choose. To wit:

Nestling in my bed at night with no dread of being awakened by siren’s blare announcing the falling of enemy missiles…

Reading at night by artificial light, then rising at morn to shower and shave, brush my teeth, and brew coffee without worry that some faceless intervening authority will disrupt the flow of electricity or water…

Striding briskly or strolling aimlessly earlier than dawn, later than dusk, and at all hours in between through my Capitol Hill neighborhood (even jaywalking across streets), an African American man with no halting fear of the police…

Speaking, preaching, writing and posting publicly with contented mind and heart without caution or concern about censorship.

Aware that others daily, hourly, at all times only dream in hope – oft so long deferred, thus denied – of these elements of emancipation I cherish, I, today, feel the weight of guilt; that, too, ironically, a luxury of my liberty. Of all my freedom’s choices that I can make in response to my guilt – revile it, reject it, run away from it – I’ve decided to receive it as gift.

guilt tripSo, I’m going on a guilt-trip. I already have a destination in mind; one that will lead to action, however small and in whatever ways, to do more to help my sisters and brothers who hurt.

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4 thoughts on “the gift of guilt

  1. I’ve always thought that guilt should be a road sign, not a millstone around our necks. If it points us away from hurtful behaviors and towards a happier, more helpful and gracious way to live, then it serves a good purpose. But when it keeps us stuck in the past, unable to move on, mired in pain that prevents us from giving or receiving love, and unable to accept Grace, it is unhealthy and does not serve God’s purposes. Blessings of grace and tender mercies to you on your “guilt trip.”

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    • Thank you, Caroline. I thought AND felt long and hard about how to respond to the guilt, the sadness I felt and feel – in my giftedness of freedom from suffering, which I did not AND cannot earn – in response to the world’s pain, which I experience so intensely, so very daily. It is not that I feel responsible for (as in causing) the suffering of others. However, I do feel response-able, that is, capable of doing more than enveloping myself (my soul) in distant empathy. So, for my resident, resonant spirit of guilt, I am grateful for inspiring a soul-deep urgency to do and to be more.

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  2. Paul,

    I love the idea of the guilt trip, especially receiving your guilt as a gift. We have an incredible amount of freedoms that we take for granted every single day.You raised so many excellent points in this post. When I read the amazing things people put on social media, especially with controversial topics such as politics and our Government, I instantly realize that in some countries some of the things people write could land them in jail.

    Your guilt trip to help those who are hurt is a fabulous idea!
    Just in the few weeks that we’ve been camping, we’ve discovered that while we are camping for fun, some folks are camping as a way of life with no other place to call home. So seeing folks taking a shower in (thankfully) very clean bathrooms and brushing their teeth as a family sharing soap and a small tube of toothpaste, making every drop count. I have felt guilt that I have huge tubes of toothpaste and bars and bars of soap at my disposal. I want to help and offer soap and toothpaste but how would some of these families respond if I did so? So I haven’t offered to this point.

    At the campground down the street from our house, we’ve discovered that there are several homeless families living there. County regulations state that they can only stay for three weeks at a time, then must leave for at least 24 hours. You and your blog have spurred me to an idea, that maybe so as not to embarrass a family, I can just leave my donation of toiletries with the campground management to give out to families who need them. The “gifts” may be better received because they are given anonymously. So I can maybe help my brothers and sisters who are hurting even for the basics in life, without making them “feel guilty” for accepting items that they actually need.

    Thanks Paul I’m going to give it a try!!!

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  3. Loretta, my dear, dear sister, tears flood my eyes as I read your response to folk near to you who suffer the deprivations of the most basic necessities AND your desire (no surprise to me as I know you!) to be of help AND in a way most compassionate. Amen, amen, and amen!

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