Editorial: Why do we feel so guilty?
On the origins of good, bad, and evil.
Let’s talk about guilt.
We’re finally nearing the end of the winter semester and assignments are piling up. It’s no secret that students and faculty alike have difficulty keeping up with projects and due dates at this time of year—we’re all tired! Although our energy has been depleted, we continue to hold ourselves to high (maybe even impossible) standards. Ultimately, when we fumble on an assignment or an important reading slips through our fingers, many of us start to feel guilty. No matter how worn out you are or how valiant your efforts were on that last quiz, you still beat yourself up over any shortcomings, asking questions like: Why didn’t I work harder? Am I even cut out for this?
However, guilt is not an emotion that comes pre-packaged with the human experience. Guilt is more like a self-inflicted punishment which we receive when we do something that we perceive as being “bad” or “immoral.” But where do these perceptions come from? Words like “good,” “bad,” and “evil” have historically served the fundamental purpose of perpetuating obedience among civilians within societies. Monarchs, nobles, and religious figures used their power and influence to tell people how to behave so that their societies ran to their standards. These elites determined what was “good,” and perhaps more importantly, what was “evil.” These concepts have been drilled so deeply into our minds that when we stray even slightly from being “good,” we punish ourselves internally using guilt—that old familiar deep ache in the belly, those nasty words gnawing at the back of your mind.
Guilt is an emotion that is learned, but is also one which can be better understood, given enough time. Try not lie awake at night thinking about how “bad” you are for missing your last essay deadline. Instead, try to think about why you feel guilty about it? Try to think about who taught you to torture yourself with guilt in this way. Is being the perfect student, teacher, or employee really the epitome of what is “good” in your world? Or is goodness and badness more complex than you think it is?
Is it so “bad” to rest when we are tired? Or to make an honest mistake? Is anything quite as serious as people make it out to be?
Spoiler alert: It probably isn’t.