Wednesday, July 7, 2010

guilt and faith

I got to thinking about guilt and faith today.

Guilt I'll define as the cognitive dissonance we feel when we perceive a gap between what we "are" and what we "should be."

Faith I'll define as the rush of joy we feel when we perceive an opportunity to rise from what we "are" to what we "could be."

Let me unpack those two concepts a little bit. Guilt is pain. Faith is pleasure. Guilt is finding yourself at the bottom of the well, seeing the sun out of reach. Faith is finding yourself on the ground, and finding a tree to climb. Guilt is the difference between -5 and 0. Faith is the difference between 0 and +5.

Now where do these two feelings come from?

Guilt, I argue, is a form of external control imposed on us from outside. The "Should," after all, has to come from somewhere. Where does it come from? Rarely if ever from us. Usually from parents, preachers, politicians, friends, teachers, and activists. Somebody has to tell us what we "should be."

Why do they tell us this? Is it because we actually SHOULD BE something?

That's an interesting question. Because "Should" depends on a deeper question -- should, FOR WHAT? Should, so God will not send us to hell. Should, so we will not be mocked. Should, so our parents will not turn their backs on us. Should must be for something, and it always seems to be something outside.

The "Could" of faith, however, doesn't have an external purpose. It has an internal one -- the pleasure of being better, stronger, faster. The joy of more power, of more freedom, of more love. It has an internal purpose. And because of that, it cannot be used to exploit us. Rather, because it comes from inside us, it only serves to better us.

Now guilt, of course, is a form of pain. It burns inside us. In extreme cases, it can physically hurt. And as living, breathing, rational organisms, we naturally shrink from pain.

So what do we do with guilt?

Well, since guilt is the gap between what we are and what we should be, what mental tricks can we play with ourselves to close the gap?

Well it seems to me there are two requirements for feeling guilt --

One, you need to have the self esteem to think you "Could" be what you "should" be -- otherwise when people tell you you're bad, you say, "Yes, of course, I know, so what."

Two, you have to care about their standard. If someone calls you a bad person because you fail to live up to their standard, but you don't care about their opinion or their standard, you feel no guilt.

The way I see it, we have four options:
1) We can keep our self-esteem intact while continuing to accept their standard, and become what they require us to be. These are the conformists who live up to society's standards. No guilt because they meet the standards.

2) We can lose our self-esteem while continuing to accept their standard, and become what they say is bad. e.g. Eminem's lyric, "I am whatever you say I am." These are the rebels who accept without question what society says is good, but then place themselves in opposition to it, as a "bad kid." No guilt because they "just can't be good."

3) We can lose both our self-esteem and their standard, and live a life of utter chaos.

4) We can maintain our self esteem while rejecting their standard. These typically invent their own, new moral codes -- which may or may not be in accord with Reality.

None of these responses, of course, is truly desirable. The first leaves others in control of your life and values. The second and third are miserable lives of low self-esteem and rebellion. The last is risky, as one invents one's own standards. Yet these are the only four options we are left with to reduce the pain of guilt, when guilt is used in an effort to control us.

Faith, on the other hand, doesn't raise these issues. It doesn't compare us with what we "should be" -- it points to what we "could be," and shows us the advantages thereof. You don't go to college because "If you don't you're a slacker." You go to college because "Knowledge and wisdom are power." You don't refrain from stealing because "only bad people steal." You refrain from stealing because it's risky, and earning wealth is much more secure and pleasurable.

The difference here is much more significant than mere "glass half full or half empty." The difference is fundamental, because there is no pain to shrink from in faith. There is nothing to hide from. You can acknowledge what you are, and know what you could be, without pain. Without cognitive dissonance. You are free to acknowledge the truth about yourself, and to ponder what you could do better.

I choose faith.

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