Guilt, remorse, and getting beyond the self-help placebo
By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota
“O God! Grant us enough fear (of displeasing Thee) that it may serve as a barrier between us and our sins. . .and grant us enough faith that it may help us to face the misfortunes of this world easily.”
–Prayer of Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings.
It’s important to distinguish between two very different emotional processes: guilt and remorse.
We sometimes think of the two as interchangeable, but in truth they are very different. Guilt is connected with control, obligation, and fear. When you’re feeling guilty, you’re being shamed and disempowered. At times, this shame can be personal, part of a private controlling force. But often, guilt is part of a broad societal shaming.
For instance, Muslims have been pressured, for the past sixteen years, to feel guilty for the horrific events of September 11, 2001, as well as other violent attacks. We’ve been put on the guilt-track, where we need to constantly excuse, explain, apologize, and apologize for a crime that took us by surprise as it did everybody else.
Indeed, this guilt denied American Muslims the space to grieve. We, too, needed to share with the rest of the community the process of loss. We, too, needed to work through our sorrow and fear.
Instead, we were roped by a feeling of guilt and shame, and a burden to prove that we were not guilty. But in this case, there is nothing we can do to prove we’re not guilty. Still, the president’s executive order evokes September 11 when suddenly revoking permanent residents’ access to their homes, jobs, and lives.
Remorse, meanwhile, is something entirely different. Remorse is personal, and remorse is empowering. We have all done something wrong, and we all know the feeling of having done wrong. This remorse—like the feeling of pain when we have cut ourselves, which directs us to wash out our cut and bandage it—is important. Without remorse, we would end up thinking we’d never done anything wrong. We’d never worry about violating our values or the rights of others.
Guilt allows us to be controlled from the outside. Remorse helps us take control of our own actions, accept them, cleanse our soul of actions that violate our values, repent, and become better people. Repentance is about nurturing our best and strongest selves.
Beyond the hope placebo
When I was early in my healing process, I turned to self-help motivations, positive thinking, and hope. It does make you feel good in the short-term: or at least it seems to. Much like the politics of hope, hope healing is ultimately a placebo that can distract us from the real issues in front of us.
As Prof. Benjamin Bratton discussed in his talk, “What’s Wrong with TED Talks,” a “placebo politics” can be much like “placebo medicine.” Inspiration, hope, and positive thinking can make us feel good. But true transformation is about facing the hard stuff: injustice, political economy, domestic and foreign policies.
A placebo can seem to have positive effects. But ultimately, on both a political and a personal level, the placebo is harmful, because you can’t just say nice things and expect that everything will be okay. You have to deal with the heavy stuff: with the social-justice issues and the racism, and on a personal level with trauma, remorse, and rebuilding. If you invest in things that make you feel good but don’t solve problems, then you’ve only moved further away from healing.
What does repentance have to do with it?
Remorse is not something that makes us feel good. It’s not the same as staring into a mirror and saying: “I’m a good person and everything’s going to be all right.” Remorse can fill us with an unpleasant dread, as we know we have to reach out and apologize, or work to make ourselves better. We have to accept that we’ve done something that violates our values.
It’s hard. But it’s also the path to real healing.
The process begins through connection, and through emptying and cleansing our internal spiritual selves. We can use prayers of forgiveness for every time we violated our values and for every time we failed to put our gifts to the best use. In an ideal world, we’d take some sort of self daily account of our actions, and seek forgiveness for every time we violate our values.
This is not about self-flagellating or self-policing. Indeed, it’s the motivational self-positive talk that’s self-policing. By attempting to force your thoughts to change—to force away the negative—we are just shoving down the pain, and not healing it. I’ve been down that route, where I tried to “fix” my thoughts and check my feelings, where I was very diligent in monitoring all these things.
But policing ourselves ultimately doesn’t help. It’s by really dealing with what we’ve done, calling ourselves to account, and repairing harm that we are being honest with ourselves and building from the ground up.
Repentance through helping others
Part of cleansing our soul of ego, and finding our way to repentance, is through using our gifts to help others. We must look for people who we can help with our gifts without robbing them of their dignity or self-worth. It’s very important we don’t note or remind them that we’re offering support—or even remind ourselves. But if we do, that’s all right. It just becomes a moment to ask for forgiveness.
When we’re helping somebody, we must try to do it in a state of servitude, not reminding them, and not expecting any reward from them. This connectivity creates links between ourselves, others, and God.
We might say, if we’re feeling low, that we have nothing to give. But if we search within ourselves, we can find a way to comfort someone hurting, to read to the blind or elderly, or to mentor a child. There are many ways and many people to help, people with whom we can connect without asking for anything in return.
Through this process, we can cleanse ourselves of our ego and receive spiritual light. This doesn’t mean we are reaching God through a bridge of our own making, or that we’re connecting because of our good deeds. As Ibn Ata Allah says:
“If you were only to reach Him after all your misdeeds had been eliminated and your pretensions all obliterated you would never reach Him. But rather, when He wants to make you reach Him, He conceals your nature with His nature and your attribute with His attribute and makes you reach Him with what is from Him to you, not from what is from you to Him.”
It’s important to remind ourselves through this process of repentance and vulnerability that we’re not doing something for God, but rather we’re receiving from God.
We all act in ways that violate our values. We may not have killed someone, but there are many small acts we can find: looking at someone in disdain, or speaking in a hurtful way. These are all things we can work on weeding out of our heart.
In this way, we’re not policing our thoughts or feelings, or telling ourselves, “You must think positive thoughts!” We are recognizing that we’re flawed and weak, and that we can build ourselves into stronger people by recognizing that we’re human beings who are bound by human limitations.
Remorse and repentance, after all, are not acts of self-punishment. They are acts of great love: both for ourselves and for the world around us. They show our willingness to do hard work for ourselves, to improve our lives and our connection to the world around us and to God.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.
Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US. She was the chair for the Interfaith Relations at Islamic Center of Minnesota. She has completed training in restorative justice at the University’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking. She was a 2008-2009 policy fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
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