True North is an abstract concept, but it is
vitally important to navigators. So, too, are ideals to the seeker, although they may seldom be reached.
I’ve heard it said that guilt is a useless emotion. I disagree.
If I stub my toe, it hurts. That brings my attention to possible damage to my body. If it’s more than superficial damage the pain hangs around, reminding me to take it easy and allow it to heal. The same is true of a headache, which could be a symptom of tension, high blood pressure, or even a brain tumor. A headache that’s severe or doesn’t go away in a relatively short time is cause for further investigation. And so forth.
I think of guilt as another form of pain. Guilt reminds me that I’ve “stubbed my toe” spiritually. By some commission or omission I have failed to live up to an obligation, duty, or my own moral and ethical standards. Just as physical pain is a warning to look to the health of my body, so is guilt a warning about my behavior: something needs to be fixed, a duty discharged, amends made. Like pain, it remains until I do something to allow it to heal.
Shame, on the other hand, is without doubt undesirable. It’s a spiritual bruise, perhaps a scar. Rather than influencing us to right a wrong, shame tells us that we are a wrong. It causes us to behave unskillfully, as well. In a very real sense, we can say that guilt keeps us honest; shame keeps us dishonest, with ourselves and others. In attempting to make ourselves feel better, we may fail to react to the pain of guilt in useful ways. If we stuff the guilt, instead of fixing the problem, it is likely to turn into more shame.
I think it’s useful for our spiritual development and repair to keep this distinction firmly in mind. People like us addicts, who come from a place of shame, are likely to find it hard to react usefully to guilt, because we were taught to believe that guilt makes us less worthy. The reality is exactly the opposite. As we learn to admit our mistakes, wrongs, and other transgressions, we move farther from shame, collecting reasons to feel better about ourselves. In time, lesson builds on lesson, and we begin to think of ourselves as worthy, rather than “wrong.”
That’s far easier said than done, but it’s a path necessary to the self-esteem that we addicts crave.
“In music, in the sea, in a flower,
in a leaf, in an act of kindness….
I see what people call God in
all these things.”
~ Pablo Casals
In the 8th and 9th Steps we learn to see and examine our deeds without hiding behind our excuses.
Am I (or was I) really ready for those steps? Did I complete them from that perspective? Do I need to take another look?
Many of us speak about our “relationships” with our Higher Power, whatever that may be, but how many of us spend our time asking for things instead of for the power to do things, as in the Third Step Prayer. (Look it up: page 63 in the AA Big Book.)
How many of us spend our time telling H.P. what we want, asking for advice, but then never shut up long enough to hear any answers? What kind of relationship is that? That doesn’t even work with humans! Continue reading