Guilt and Punishment

Healing Original Sin

There’s a lot of ruin in a nation, a great man once said. And there’s a lot to learn from the ruin of a nation. I want to discuss the psychology, not just economics, of American collapse. It’s a nation without a unified purpose, a shared motive to fix the house of prosperity, even a set of guiding ideals — all the things that must live in the heart if a life is to really flourish. Why is that?

Americans are caught in a vicious dance — each “side” punishes the other, and neither side wants the best for the other. That is really what a lack of healthcare, good jobs, education, and so on are. The Democrats might want a slightly better policy here or there — but that’s a far cry from genuinely fixing a nation’s problems. It appears as if there is a total vacuum of positive human qualities here: compassion, empathy, and so on. So much so that the mere mention of them is met with mockery and cynicism — worse from the left than from the right.

Now why would that level of cynicism be? It’s not just childish. It’s self-destructive. Why would Americans deny themselves the very qualities that lead to happiness? You cannot, after all, really have happiness without grace, forgiveness, compassion, and so on — as a cynic, you will be a prisoner of your anger and rage, and you can’t simultaneously be happy and angry. So why would they choose anger and cynicism and bleak rage over the simple human conditions for happiness — and look at those very conditions with loathing?

America is punishing itself, it seems to me. Over and over again. There is a cycle of vicious abuse at the heart of American life — at work, play, in love, Americans are told that suffering is virtuous — but I’ve come to believe that cycle itself has deeper roots. It is the expression of self-punishment. Americans are punishing one another by denying each other the basics of a good life. It is as if they are saying “we don’t deserve to be happy as a society.”

We don’t punish ourselves unless we feel guilty. And I’ve come to believe, too, that there is a great — and deeply repressed — sense of guilt in the American soul. Guilt for what? Guilt for all its original sins. Slavery, segregation, ethnic cleansing, and so on. Guilt for all its current failures. While we might want to pretend these things didn’t really happen that badly, or didn’t really matter so much — as Americans are taught in high school — no working soul can escape the profound and terrible sense of guilt they create. My society, my forefathers, my people — they did this to one another? This is the hidden truth of us? Any and every soul that functions morally must ask.

The only question is whether these existential questions, and the profound sense of guilt and shame they produce is repressed — or conscious. For some liberals, a tiny number, the guilt is visible — they are comfortable expressing it. But for most of America, I believe, that guilt is deeply repressed — hence the cover of the myth of America as the one righteous and noble nation in history, the “great experiment” and so on (who else but a person with little esteem needs to create a grandiose myth?). And that buried guilt comes out in rage, in violent anger, in the need to punish one’s self and one’s neighbors, over and over again. Without the expiation of guilt, a society’s original sin condemns it to a kind of psychological inferno. Its demons, not its angels, come to control its future.

Maybe you don’t believe it. I don’t blame you. American aren’t comfortable with psychological explanations of material phenomena. And yet that doesn’t make them any less true. Rwanda, Germany, Japan, for example, didn’t have to commit genocide for any determinative material reason — they didn’t have to: they chose to, to placate their own inner demons. So psychology determines as much of, maybe more of, human life, than the glossy, shining machinery of economics, technology, and money that Americans feel comfortable discussing.

In other words, guilt is a necessary emotion. As much as leftists contend that “shaming” is a moral wrong, society depends on the catharsis and expression of shame and guilt. There are things we must feel shame and guilt for — and if we cannot, then we end up with Trumps. Only through the feeling of guilt is there a possibility for reconciliation: to make amends with the moral failures of the distant past, that haunt us still, deep in our souls.

American collapse, then, teaches us a great and powerful lesson — not just economic, but this time psychological. To repress guilt is to bury it. But you cannot bury the undead. They will rise from the grave and punish you, torment you, taunt you. A society’s guilt, especially guilt as great and terrible as America’s, must be expressed, experienced, heard — and reconciled with truth, love, grace, forgiveness. If none of that can happen, then just like a person who has committed a crime against their family and still justifies it, no matter how deep the guilt is hidden, its demons will always roar. And whether or not such a person punishes themselves or others is besides the point: the ghost of the past that has never truly died.

Our guilt, like our pain, contains our possibility. And until and unless we feel it, see it, share it, and express it, so that it can be made right, that possibility shrinks, like a withering seed, into anger, fear, rage, and shame.

July 2017