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116. Guilt - The Eighth Deadly Sin

Apparently, when the deadly sins were first brought together by one Evagrius, a Greek theologian, there were eight. Sadness, interestingly, was an additional shortcoming. They must have been brutal times. The idea was that the more a sin was centred on the self, the more deadly it was. Sadness, one imagines, was considered somewhat self-indulgent. For myself, in my ignorance, they always looked deadly to me because they are feelings rather than actions, and feelings that one can't help. One would rather not feel greedy, for example, and you can stop yourself from pigging out, but if you're feeling greedy there's little you can do about it. On that basis, I reckon there are other contenders for this hierarchy of sin. Regret, I have always felt, should probably be included, being so unpleasant and pointless. More recently I have realised that there is another contender, one that pervades our modern society - guilt. Guilt: The feeling of having committed wrong or failed in an obligation' Oxford English Dictionary. I was at a meeting the other day, hosted in a room attached to a local Catholic church. Around the room, loose and in boxes, were the trappings of other meetings, including a Sunday school. As I was making myself a cup of tea in the kitchen I noticed a large-print laminated sheet on the window sill. Clearly a piece of spiritual education for young children, this is what it said: God help me to be a good person by: Being nice to people Helping people when they fall over Making sure there's enough food for everyone in the world to eat Helping people to understand each other so there's no more war Is it just me or is there something of a leap between 'Helping people when they fall over' and 'Making sure there's enough food for everyone in the world to eat'? Not to mention, 'Helping people to understand each other so there's no more war'? These last two seem to me a tall order for a six year old. But this is presumably how it all starts. At some point we internalise standards like these for our behaviour and every time we fail to live up to any those standards we feel guilty. Guilt may result in taking action in order to reach those standards, in which case it is useful and short-lived, but it may simply make us feel bad, especially if the standards, like these, are entirely unrealistic. In these cases we may see guilt as a kind of penance - if you're bad then at least you can make up for it by feeling bad. 'Hard though it may be to accept, remember that guilt is sometimes a friendly internal voice reminding you that you're messing up.' Marge Kennedy, novelist and playwright Not everyone feels guilt. Psychopaths don't feel guilt. Ironically, the more decent, responsible, and kindly a person you are, the more likely you are to spend your days racked with guilt. Take a simple trip to the supermarket. You need to take the car because otherwise you can't carry the weekly shop home, but you know you shouldn't be adding to your already substantial carbon footprint, courtesy of the long haul flight you took last autumn. You should really be supporting local independent tradespeople, but you would need a week to get everything you need from six different shops, and a much larger income. But then your heart sinks when you realise you are personally responsible for the recent demise of the village fishmonger. Once at the supermarket there are many more of these ethical dilemmas. Should you buy organic food or contribute to the poisoning of the planet (and your family) by buying non-organic food? Is it ok to buy your fruit in a package so it doesn't get bruised, or should it really be loose? Should you buy fair trade produce (what does that mean exactly anyway?), and if you don't will you be supporting some banana republic where the work is done by children paid peanuts, whose wages are squeezed even further by exploitative middlemen? Should you support developing countries by purchasing their products, or should you be supporting farmers in your own country who don't consume millions of gallons of fuel by sending their produce thousands of miles via jumbo jet? Free range chicken is so much kinder, but it's expensive. And should you be eating meat at all, given that it is a most inefficient use of the world's resources and is cruel to animals? And milk and butter and yoghurt - is it really fair to have cows permanently lactating? Wouldn't using soya milk be so much kinder? It is beginning to seem that, if you want to feel guilt free, you would need to live on loose vegetables and pulses, organically grown in a nearby allotment, purchased on foot (or bicycle) from your nearest shop, stopping en route to drop a generous amount of money into a collection box for a charity that supports sustainable development in developing countries. Even then, there are the supermarket staff who would lose their jobs if everybody followed suit. And the children in faraway countries who wouldn't get their paltry earnings anymore, and whose parents can't afford to send them to school. And what about the lorry drivers and air cargo staff? And the meat farmers and dairy farmers, at home and abroad? Is it really possible to live responsibly? And this is just a visit to the supermarket. Add in the latest war zone that needs your money, our history of colonialism and the slave trade, poverty and hunger at home and abroad, the damage done by tourism, the wastage of water when you turn on the tap, the use of fuel when you turn up the heating, the fundraisers who regularly ambush you on the pavement, the pictures of abused children on the train asking you to text �3 to help them, the beggars on the street, all the suffering and unfairness in the world around you. Not to mention our own private uncharitable judgments and self-serving behaviours. Guilt for being rich, and guilt thinking that perhaps love and peace aren't enough, you have to get shot or something.' John Lennon Guilt for being rich, and guilt thinking that perhaps love and peace isn't enough and you have to go and get shot or something. John Lennon Read more at Guilt for being rich, and guilt thinking that perhaps love and peace isn't enough and you have to go and get shot or something. John Lennon Read more at Has our caring responsible society turned us all into guilt junkies? More importantly, does it do any good? Does feeling guilty turn us all into uber-responsible pillars of the community? Guilt for being rich, and guilt thinking that perhaps love and peace isn't enough and you have to go and get shot or something. John Lennon Read more at Unfortunately it doesn't, and quite possibly has the opposite effect. Guilt is an act of self-attack. When we are attacked, even by ourselves, our energies are marshalled into protecting ourselves and, as a result, are simply not available for others. Ironically, therefore, guilt consumes the very energy that we could otherwise use for doing the things it says you should do! What to do ..... ? Try this: 1. How guilty do you feel right now? Are you comfortable with how you live your life, your contribution to your family, community, the environment and those less fortunate? Or do you carry around a more or less constant feeling that you have more than you should and that you don't do enough for others or the environment? Or something in between? 2. If guilt does colour your day to day experience, how does it affect you? Does it make you do more, give more, act more responsibly? Or does it just make you feel bad? 3. Thinking about your feelings of guilt, what are the standards that you must, at some point, have set for yourself? 4. Where did those standards come from? Were you too told, at an early age, that you were personally responsible for preventing hunger and war? Were you the caretaker in your family, and that led you to believe that that was your job in life? Was it implied to you that it was bad to have wealth? Did you learn it was bad to spend your pocket money on yourself, and good to drop it into the Save the Children collection box? 5. Do a reality check. Make a list of everything that you do to protect the environment and care for people Do you recycle, give to charity, raise funds, walk everywhere, ride a bicycle? Do you volunteer, look after family, contribute via your work? Are you nice to people and help them when they fall over? Do you try to be a good person? 6. On a scale of 1 - 10, where 1 is completely irresponsible and uncaring, and 10 is eco-warrior/humanitarian hero/family-member-extraordinaire rolled into one, how decent and responsible do you feel when you review all your efforts? 7. If your score is lower than you feel comfortable with, make two lists: a) a list of the things that you think you probably should do, but you do not want to do and will therefore not do. Eg. I do not want to give up eating meat and I am not planning to. I want to continue using my car for local errands. Etc b) a list of small actions you would like to take. Eg. I will only buy free range chicken. I will use the train for longer journeys wherever practical and keep my speeds down when I drive. Assess your score again. The problem with guilt is that, often at an unconscious level, we think assuaging it will be too big a task. We want to help ALL the refugees in Syria, feed ALL the children in Africa, free ALL the political prisoners in Myanmar, take ALL the children in our own country out of poverty. We want to be a perfect parent, perfect spouse, perfect citizen, without really having worked out what that would look like. The reality is that there are over seven billion people in the world and each of us is just one of them. Accepting our limitations in the face of so much suffering and destruction may be one of the hardest things we do, but paradoxically it can free us to do the little that we can. 'The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention' Oscar Wilde Wishing you a week of feeling like a good person! with love Anita

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