Guilt and Gratitude Revisited
I wrote about this topic in December when I was feeling defeated by waves of guilt that I couldn't comprehend. It has been an idea that has come back to me again recently. I keep hearing the words in my head and in this latest wave of "purging energy" I have found myself getting defensive at times. When I follow the defensive feeling it leads me to guilt.
"Why am I acting so defensively?" I ask myself when bitter thoughts rise to the surface of my brain.
"Because I don't want to feel guilty," Myself answers.
"What do I feel guilty about?" I ask myself again.
"I feel guilty about how well I am doing when I know how hard this time is. I feel bad because I know I'm going to keep doing well and not fall down and other people are going to get hit hard and it will hurt them really badly. I can feel that I am about to really fly and other people are going to crash hard and it doesn't seem fair for me to have fun and do well when I know there is pain around."
"You're right" I tell myself, "It isn't fair. It isn't fair that I get to enjoy this time while others suffer and it wasn't fair when I suffered while others took off."
"But I don't want to be miserable anymore" Myself says, "That isn't fair either."
"No" I realize, "Fairness has nothing to do with it. Nothing at all."
And then something clicked. Guilt and gratitude seem related. They both have to do with receiving things that are undeserved, but guilt comes from a judgment or justice- oriented view of how things "should be" and gratitude comes from a surrendering view of how things "are."
If I try to look at life (my own and that of others-- especially in relation to one another) from a justice-based lens which thinks that things "should be" fair and looks for ways to explain distribution then I continually end up back in the feeling of guilt. I'm not saying that justice is bad or that it shouldn't occur-- I think there is a divine kind of justice that needs to occur and I believe in the pursuit of social justice with all of my heart-- but justice in the sense of fairness and deserving becomes problematic very quickly. I think that our understanding of justice right now (and definitely my understanding of justice in the recent past) is extremely limited and misses the point of true justice. I might explain this more in another post later this week (I have an idea for one titled "Blame and Responsibility") but for now I want to get back to the idea of guilt and gratitude.
The idea here is that if I try to make things "fair" in my head then the result is usually guilt. Whether I do well or poorly from this perspective I feel guilty. If I do well I feel guilty because deep down I know that I am no better than anyone else and don't deserve to have any more than the person with the least amount of joy and support. If I am in pain I feel that I have earned that pain as a kind of punishment for not being enough and feel guilty because I am clearly flawed. Either way there is guilt. From this perspective the game is rigged-- the rules themselves are unfair. The solution is to change the rules.
Gratitude can take the place of guilt, when I shift the lens. When I accept that no one deserves anything good or bad, but we are all on this journey experiencing what we experience for reasons more complicated than I can currently comprehend I can let go of guilt and receive gratitude instead. This is how it works for me:
I recognize that I didn't do anything to deserve to be alive right now. I didn't have any control over the body or family I was born into. I didn't have any say over the country or time period I live in (unless you believe in soul contracts, reincarnation and the choosing of certain aspects of life pre-birth which I sort of do but that leads to a different point related to divine justice, so for simplicity lets say that we don't have any control over those things, at least not any conscious control from the perspective of this particular lifetime). So I didn't deserve to be born. I didn't deserve my body with all of its strengths and illnesses. I didn't deserve my family whether they treat me well or abuse me. I didn't deserve my country whether it supports my life or degrades it. I didn't deserve my culture or whether I would have access to education or multiple perspectives. I didn't deserve my personality. I didn't deserve my level of pain tolerance. I didn't deserve my ability to adapt to change. I didn't deserve the environmental system around me. I didn't deserve to have air or water. I don't deserve to take the life of another (plant or animal) every time I eat. I don't deserve ANY of it.
But I have it.
I have been given this life. I get to live it in this body with this brain and this personality. I was raised in the family, culture, and society in which I was raised. I was able to change or I wasn't. I found help and support or I didn't. I eat food and the energy of a life that has passed sustains me. I didn't deserve it. I can't deserve it, but I can accept it and in accepting it I can appreciate it. I might not understand why I received the things I did (for better or worse), but I have them and I can choose to look for the good in them and be grateful for them or I can choose to reject them or blame them or harm myself with them.
When I realize that I don't deserve anything then I can see the life I have been given as a gift. Some parts of my life might not seem like gifts and I don't have to say that they are, but I can find something worthwhile in them even if it is just the strength to reject them in the future. I think there is danger in saying "everything is a gift." So I want to clarify that now. I don't think that people born into abusive families or who suffered any kind of violence or horrible illness would see those things as gifts and I think that to call them that would be demeaning; but those experiences are not punishments either. They are horrible experiences that happen for reasons that we can try to explain but never seem to come to an acceptable answer for-- and yet people still manage to rise above them or heal them or grow compassion for others in similar situations from their own experiences. These abilities are the gifts-- not the bad situations but the strength to rise above them.
If I try to generalize too much I run into a bunch of problems because the truth is there is real suffering in the world. There are people who suffer and never have the chance to overcome it and that is not fair... But that is also my point-- it's not fair. It's not about being fair. I didn't do anything to deserve being where I am now. I could have died a long time ago or stayed trapped in the hell within my head. I didn't deserve to have the love and support that I do or to learn the lessons I learned, but I don't have to feel guilty about the fact that I don't deserve them. Instead I can feel grateful. I can wake up each day and remember that I didn't deserve to still be alive, but I am. I can smile and laugh and remember that there was a time when I could do neither and I can be grateful that for reasons beyond my comprehension I was able to make it beyond that time. And I don't have to be grateful at someone else's expense (which is one of the traps that that shadow voices like to throw at me). I can use gratitude and the realization that I didn't earn my freedom to be more compassionate, more generous, and less judgmental to anyone who isn't where I am. If I believed I deserved to be here then it would be easy to look down on others because they must not have "deserved" to make it--- but when I realize that I myself didn't deserve it then I can understand the pain without blaming the person going through it.
So it seems to me for now that gratitude takes a situation you don't deserve and uses it to lift yourself and others up while guilt takes a situation you or others don't deserve and uses it to pull yourself and others down. They are really almost the same thing-- but heading in different directions.
There is probably much more to it than this, but these are my thoughts on this topic for now.
Thank you for reading. :)