Hooray for Guilt!

I’m finishing my recuperation week and starting Round Three of chemotherapy tomorrow, so I’m halfway done with treatment! I’m not nauseous or foggy-brained currently, so this is a good time for reflection. I’m especially on the hunt for thoughts and feelings that no longer serve me well, and emotions which may have fostered or festered my colon cancer.

I take these mid-course reevaluation opportunities as a gift and as a task. The task (and the gift) is stated well in the book by Dr. James Hollis:

What wishes to live within us? Find that, and give it energy, value and enactment in the world… So we need to ask: “Where am I stuck, blocked by archaic fears, and therefore repeating, reinforcing the conditions that have produced [these uncomfortable stirrings]?” “What new life is seeking to live through me, and what must I do to bring it into being?”[i]

I may have found part of my answer from reading Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved, where he counter-intuitively links happiness to brokenness…

We often live as if our happiness depended on having. But I don’t know anyone who is really happy because of what he or she has. True joy, happiness, and inner peace come from the giving of ourselves to others. A happy life is a life for others. That truth, however, is usually discovered when we are confronted with our brokenness… Our brokenness opened us [Henri & his friend Fred] to a deeper way of sharing our lives and offering each other hope. Just as bread needs to be broken in order to be given, so, too, do our lives… As mortal people, brokenness is a reality of our existence, and as we befriend it and place it under the blessing, we will discover how much we have to give—much more than we may ever have dreamed.

Nouwen challenges readers to “claim” our unique brokenness. Why? Because of the authenticity and healing we can offer to one another through accepting and sharing it with fellow journeyers. I reflected on this for a few days without being able to name or claim mine; and yet it seemed important to do so, not an exercise in morose self-pity. Thich Nhat Hanh piled on, encouraging us to speak our personal vulnerability: “I suffer; please help.”  Though this language and mindset does not come naturally to me, I sensed an invitation triangulating from these disparate sources.

It all came together while reflecting again on Nouwen’s words that “brokenness is a reality of our existence, and as we befriend it and place it under the blessing, we will discover how much we have to give—much more than we may ever have dreamed.”  True, to whatever extent my ‘brokenness’ drove me into the work I do, it has at the same time allowed me to have very meaningful impact with my life, “much more than I may ever have dreamed.” This is my brokenness which has been “given” in service to others and brought true joy and happiness to my own life. This was the clue I needed.

So what is my brokenness? What do I suffer? I suffer guilt. Often. Maybe daily. It is my near-constant companion, my frequent co-traveler.

My guilt is simply a recognition of the obvious— that “I have more”; that I am unfairly privileged at the expense of others who are just as worthy but aren’t White or American or male or heterosexual or Christian; and that I could always do more about addressing these disparities than I do currently.[ii]

For many decades I’ve been conditioned by my society to abhor and disdain Guilt as a debilitating and depressing emotion. Well yes, it’s a negative emotion! It should be! Emotions can lead to strong motivations, and righting wrongs is one of the best motivations there is!

Who decided that guilt is always bad? Probably us, the people who “have.” We deny its positive attributes because guilt doesn’t work to our personal advantage or add to our comfort. We’ve suckered and succored ourselves out of accepting or befriending guilt, so we miss the chance to let it help direct us to a more meaningful life. Instead we call it every name in the book and mock those who admit to feeling it.

I’m no psychologist, and I’m sure there is “bad” guilt, as well as poor ways for dealing with “good” guilt. But there are also wonderful ways. In my latest book[iii] I quote philosopher and activist Joanna Macy, who gives a provocative invitation:

Apathy and denial stem not from callous indifference or ignorance so much as fear of pain . . . That [revelation] became the most pivotal point in the landscape of my life . . . to see how we are called to not run from the discomfort or the outrage or even fear. If we can be fearless, be with our pain, it turns. It’s not static. If we can . . . observe it in our hands and keep breathing, it turns to reveal its other face: Our love for the world, our absolute inseparable connectedness with all of life.”

‘If we can be fearless with our pain, it turns to reveal our love for the world!’ I realize now that not running from my discomfort and fear when I was jumped after school in 8th grade by a Mexican immigrant classmate may actually have been “the most pivotal moment in the landscape of my life,” as well. [Read story here.] By the following year I was volunteering at an inner-city hospital and leaning into issues of global disparity. By my mid-20s I felt the stirrings that led me from IBM to a career focused on these very issues.

That’s something I feel exceedingly satisfied and happy about! Yeah, guilt was and continues to be part of the mix, and I suffer because of it. But I didn’t simply wallow forever in unacted-upon guilt. Several aspects of my life have since combined to make a positive impact to reduce inequality and improve human thriving in a world of unequal opportunity. Doesn’t that make it “good” guilt, or at least redeemable guilt?

I think it’s high time I start owning my guilt, living with it instead of denying it; even ‘befriending’ it, as in “There you are again, my old friend Guilt coming to pay me another visit!” And it’s time I find the language to articulate this internal suffering and heartache to others. I feel at times like the grieving widow who continues mourning beyond what her friends deem acceptable; she quickly learns to live her brokenness privately.

So now I say: Hooray for my guilt and for all its clever manifestations designed to get my attention and bring me back to my first priorities!

I’m Cory Trenda. I suffer with guilt.


Sept 2019

[i] Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, by Dr. James Hollis

[ii] Read the new Gates Foundation report on gender and geographic inequality published today!

[iii] After the Trip: Unpacking Your Crosscultural Experience, by Cory Trenda

3 thoughts on “Hooray for Guilt!

  1. There’s a lot of wisdom here, and I “appreciate” the challenge to reflect on my own brokenness!

    Which in my case I think is a desperate need to be seen as valuable, competent, and contributing. I too face a daily brokenness, and that is a sense of frustration with myself (often quite keen) that I have somehow failed to impress others.

    I guess I’m going to have to blog about that!

    Anyway, Cory, I appreciate your wisdom and am praying for you in this particular journey which I know can’t be easy. Give my love to Janet and your family.

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