How Do You Live with Guilt?


By Terence Stone

Recently, I received yet another message from a very distressed reader. They’ve been harboring a significant amount of guilt for sometime, and were interested in hearing my opinion. It turned into quite a lengthy response with (I think) a very pertinent message. I hope you find it so, and please feel free to share your opinions with me in the comments section.

The letter

Dear Terence,

I find myself plagued by guilt over something that happened many years ago. It seems to come and go throughout my life. Sometimes the guilt will fade into the background and I won’t think about it much. Other times, it’ll become so prevalent, I often can’t sleep at night.

The thing is that the person who I hurt has since moved on. They never forgave me – we haven’t spoken since, but they seem to be living a happy life. I know I should just let it go, but I’m a devout Catholic and I can’t help thinking that I’m going to hell for what I did. Normally, I’d speak to a priest, but I stumbled on your site, and wanted to get an outside opinion. Thanks for your time.

The response

Dear Reader,

It will be difficult for me to give you any truly specific thoughts as to your situation without knowing the circumstances, but I can certainly speak about guilt and the implication of ‘sin’ here.

I, too, was raised Catholic so I understand what that Catholic guilt feels like. It can eat away at you and cause enormous anxiety. Furthermore, the Catholic view on wrongdoing or sin is incredibly harsh and unforgiving in many ways. It makes it nearly impossible for devotees to ever feel like they’ve been truly forgiven.

I think it is important to ask yourself a few questions. First, Is your anxiety over the matter proportional to the event itself? That is, would someone else, looking on from the outside, think that you deserve to suffer perpetually for what you’ve done? Or has it been magnified to monstrous proportions in your head? You say that this other person has moved on, as in they’re not suffering anymore? Why are you?

Second, Do you require this person’s forgiveness? Sometimes we most certainly do, and it is an important question to think on. However, much of the time the person we need to forgive most is ourselves. You are clearly suffering. You feel as though God won’t forgive you, but have you forgiven yourself? Can you?

When Jesus was dying on the cross he said, “Forgive them Father. They know not what they do.” What did he mean by that? I believe he meant, forgive them for their unconscious behavior. They have not accessed their truest nature and thus are caught in the cycle of unconscious thought, action, and pain.

How unconscious was the ‘sin’ you committed? Did you act from a place of fear, anger, malice, greed? If so, then you were caught up in a cycle of pain and unawareness. Of what? Of how those things would affect you. And how unconscious is your behavior now? You keep yourself in a state of perpetual suffering instead of accepting what’s been done, and forgiving yourself so that you may come to love yourself.

You see, this is why I take issue with the Catholic concept of sin and guilt. It instigates self-deprecation and hatred. Surely, Jesus did not mean his message to be carried out thus. After all, he said that the kingdom of heaven is within us. But self-hatred keeps that oasis of compassion and beauty out of sight. Therefore, we must learn to forgive ourselves, to love ourselves. Only then will we operate in a way that does not hurt others.

Now, I am a practicing Buddhist, and I must admit I find the Buddhist teaching on sin to be much more palatable, and intelligent, for that matter. Buddhists hardly ever use the terms ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the traditional, dualistic sense. Rather, they use the terms ‘skillful’ or ‘unskillful.’ It makes a lot of sense within the scope of Buddhist thought.

The Buddha’s message was centered around the cessation of suffering. As such, he set out guidelines and urged his followers to constantly question themselves on the path to liberation. So instead of saying, “I’m a terrible person, I’ll never be forgiven for what I’ve done,” we must ask ourselves if our action is or was skillful or unskillful. Does this action help me on the path to liberation from suffering? Does it hurt others? Does it hurt me?

If we are willing to really look at our behavior and ask these often-difficult questions, then we are on the path to a conscious existence. Then, we begin to know what we do. Understand, I don’t give you this Buddhist thought in attempt to convert you. Rather, I offer it to shed new light on the Christian idea of sin. I truly believe that Christ’s message was not so different. He told us to love one another, forgive your enemy (sometimes we are our own worst enemy), realize the divine within yourself. In other words, be aware, be conscious.

I hope this helps somewhat and I wish you the best on your journey. If you feel that this issue is too large for you to handle on your own, I’d urge you to seek out a licensed therapist. In the hands of a skilled counselor, Western psychology can do wonders in developing a conscious life, and exploring deep-set unconscious patterns of thought and action.

Wishing you boundless peace and liberation of mind and heart.

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Chief Editor and Founder of Urban Spiritual, I’m a classically trained singer and actor living in New York City, who has performed in the U.S. and Europe. I’m also a writer, traveller, meditator, arts-lover, and well-being enthusiast.

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