Guilt has a bad reputation. For good reason. Through the centuries, clergy of different faiths have used guilt to manipulate people into obedience. One recovering Catholic told me that her strongest motivators still are "guilt and chocolate."
As a pastor, I avoid telling people they've done something wrong.
Guilt triggers a sinking feeling in my gut that quickly morphs into self-shaming: "Why did you do that? You're a bad person."
I don't want others to feel badly about themselves.
However, the older I get, and the more human stupidity I witness—my own and others'—particularly in the last two years—I have a new respect for guilt.
I've begun to think about guilt as being like the canaries people used to take into mines to detect the presence of carbon monoxide. If the canary keeled over, miners knew to escape to fresh air.
Or, guilt may be like "indicator species" in a watershed. In 1991, our family moved to a house in Southfield overlooking the Rouge River. We loved the variety of wildlife below us in the flood plain: deer, raccoons, owls, hawks. Once we even saw a coyote loping along the riverbank, tail out, head high, as if he owned the place.
One warm evening in May, we heard a sound like sleigh bells in the distance. Spring peepers! Sometimes I would stand quietly beside the vernal pond dotted with marsh marigold long enough to see tiny brown heads break the surface of the water.
But after a few years, we didn't hear the peepers anymore.
Because of their porous skin, amphibians like frogs and toads are very sensitive to toxic chemicals. River conservation groups like Friends of the Rouge conduct annual frog and toad surveys because a decline in the number of amphibians can be an early warning: something is wrong in the watershed.
We found out later that a water treatment plant upstream of our house had used a massive amount of chlorine trying to eradicate e coli bacteria. That heedless act probably caused the end of the Spring peepers in our part of the watershed.
Someone needed to convince plant operators to adopt a different method of e coli mitigation.
Guilt can be good in our personal and corporate lives when it functions as an ethical early warning system. Guilt tells us when we've done something wrong. Guilt alerts us not to keep saying things we'll later regret. Guilt warns us when our behavior is hurting others.
Conversely, a lack of guilt allows unethical behavior to continue. For example, a lack of guilt lets people spread misinformation that threatens public health. Lack of guilt lets leaders perpetrate lies that endanger democracy.
Those who feel guilt may help us avoid disaster.
I'm hoping for the day when riverside dwellers will once again hear the sound of sleigh bells along the Rouge River. In the meantime, whenever and wherever we need it, may we be given the gift of guilt.
"Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also." Psalm 31:9 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Pity Me, God, in My Distress," King David: A Symphonic Psalm in Three Parts by Arthur Honegger, 1924, English translation by Edward Agate.