The Uselessness of Guilt

Valencia Church-Williams

Selfishness is the act of repeatedly internalizing everything such that is about the Self and the Self only. Guilt is a form of selfishness wherein we attempt to project what we experience and believe onto others and act and react as if what we experience and believe are actually others’ thoughts and feelings and not mere conjecture and projections. In Layman’s terms, we call this guilt.

But what is the purpose of guilt? Does it serve us? It may prompt us to say or do things differently at a superficial level for a time until we feel assuaged, but what are the long-term effects? Do the changes whose impetus has been guilt stick? Or, do we become stuck in the same rut after the offended party moves on?

Grappling with these type questions should be the work of our lives. In Nichiren Buddhism, we study the concept of hon-nin myo or “From this moment forward.” In the words of Edward Canfor-Dumas, this means to decide to make a new start and new causes for the future NOW; to refuse to allow the long shadow of the past to cast its darkness over everything […].

The aforementioned concept allows us to move away from the useless and selfish emotion of guilt and on to the more productive call of responsibility. We must take responsibility for the words, deeds, and actions that have done literal or figurative violence to others without continuing to disparage our own lives through guilt. Apologies can be powerful, but alone, they are mere words. They become infused with wisdom and power when we accompany them with bold actions toward restitution such as hand-written “Thank You” notes. Gratitude, after all, is a discipline. A sacrifice of time to the wronged individual goes a long way toward demonstrating our sincere regret. If you were late, how can you act to give that party back all or a portion of their time? Can you offer to complete a task, run an errand, or stay late in their stead?

As a dear friend of mine is often apt to say “It is already done and cannot be undone, so what are we going to do to fix it?” We must find the courage and develop the skill set to move forward. We must identify practices that will be sustainable and allow us to move forward. For me, my main tools are chanting, meditation, and eventual and perpetual forgiveness of myself and others.   I will not presume to “Introduce Anyone to Themselves” or attempt to specify which practices they should employ in their given and unique circumstances. I only know that we must reflect on which daily habits empower us and which one’s serve to victimize us. For example: Regular sleeping and waking cycles are restorative because we problem solve as we sleep, but late night worry is victimizing and unproductive because our body cannot rest while the mind spins its proverbial wheels.

In Buddhism and in life, the past is much less important than the here and now. Whatever has happened in the past cannot be undone and so the important thing is to start from this moment to change for the better. Let us not be backward-looking obsessed with the mistakes of the past and no vision for the future. With this from-this-moment-forward paradigm, we can be reborn each and every day.

References

Hochswender, W. (2006). The Buddha In Your Rearview Mirror: a guide to practicing Buddhism in modern life. Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

Valencia Church-Williams


Program Coordinator, Professional Developer, Instructional Coach, Reading Specialist, Children's Librarian


Valencia is a scholar-practitioner with 20+ years of experience as a performance artist and 16+ years as a literacy educator. She completed doctoral course work at North Central University, studying leadership and special education program administration. She also earned credentials as a reading specialist and children's librarian from East Carolina University. Her research interests include learning disabilities in reading, metalinguistics, teacher preparation, professional learning communities, and special education teacher quality.