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Rolling in the Muck

March 27, 2019


“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment… Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.” Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

I’m going to slightly rephrase the Huxley quote to say: “Being in a chronic state of penitence, is a most undesirable way of being. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.” I believe this reworking of the quote is consistent with Huxley’s sentiment, because usually remorse of some type can drive our need to do penance.

There is certainly is place for penance.  We need to make amends by righting our wrongs as best we can for the real harms we’ve done to others. However, it’s possible to make an art form of our penitence, when we, knowingly or otherwise, submerge ourselves into a continuous state of remorse, guilt and shame (the states of being, feeling and thinking that usually underly our perceived need for penitence).

Why We Do It

“Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action…” Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

There may be a number of reasons for our need to roll in the muck of excessive penance.  For example, it might be that:

We fear that we will never be able to remedy our real or perceived misdeeds. In other words, for us there is no redemption and so we must suffer.

♦   We feel a sense of superiority in that our excessive chest-beating is somehow indicative of a higher state of being or…

♦  We believe that if we beat ourselves up enough, it is a buffer against others’ condemnation of us. We’ll beat them to the punch, as it were or…

♦  It relieves us of the need to DO anything to transform our lives. We stop at the excessive remorse and self-flagellation stage and then do nothing about making any needed amends. Nor do we work toward any meaningful change in our attitudes and behaviors.

Of course, binging on our remorse, guilt and shame can become so habitual that we don’t even know we’re doing it.

The Harm We Do… To Ourselves

“There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.”,  Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

The upshot is that whether we acknowledge it or not, this state of affairs is having a negative effect on us. It harms our minds, our bodies and our spirits and accomplishes absolutely nothing of value. Really.

It is a miserable way to live.

The Remedy

“There are two kinds of guilt: the kind that drowns you until you’re useless, and the kind that fires your soul to purpose.” Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes

So, what is required of us? In my view, the remedy lies in becoming more self-aware – more conscious. Once we can see what we are doing,  we are able to search for the hidden reasons underlying this state of self-inflicted penitence.

Firstly, we need to discover what this remorse, this guilt achieves for us – what the payoff is for us. For example, what responsibilities to ourselves and important others are we dodging by committing ourselves to a state of constant self-victimization?

The next step is to be courageous and take action by:

♦  Making amends by directly or indirectly compensating for any real harms we’ve done to others and

♦  Taking steps to become better and do better now and into the future.

And, undoubtedly, there is this little thing called self-forgiveness. I believe the above steps help us to move in that direction.

Healing Requires Sustenance

“There is a vanity in excess penance. You must have sustenance.” Sister Monica Joan, Call the Midwife

What Sister Monica Joan implies in her statement is that rather than excess penance, we need sustenance.

In that scene in Call the Midwife, the sustenance Monica Joan provides is pastry. But she could just as well have been referring to a deeper sustenance – the symbolic sustenance required for healing the spirit that can be gained from a dose of healthy self-love, self-acceptance along with a commitment to change ourselves for the better.

And it is a way of making amends to ourselves for the harm, the suffering, we’ve endured at our own hands.