Guilt. Shame. Two indispensable viruses lodged in our machine code. Partially or completely missing in some of us.
Our operating system comes preloaded with a mind-boggling set of apps that are incredibly helpful at keeping us out of trouble and utterly miserable companions if we even consider doing something wrong.
We are lost in thought. A frown creases our brow. We look up and see someone from work or from school. They look back at us, a little perplexed, and walk on. Although we did nothing explicitly wrong, some of us will feel guilt about snubbing someone we knew, even though we were simply lost in a confusing moment about what we should do with our day.
Or we see a father or mother speak harshly to their child at the grocery or in a parking lot. We know what they’re doing is inappropriate and wrong, but we cannot find the courage to interrupt them, or we fear that their rage and misbehavior will turn on us, perhaps in a more terrifying way. And we feel shame about our moment of cowardice for the rest of the day. And for some days afterwards. And intermittently in the middle of completely normal days, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, a leaden bell ringing in the middle of a sunny day or during a dream at night.
But we also live on the bones of people our ancestors drove out of their homes, away from their villages and ways of life, into desolate ghettos. We live among people who our ancestors enslaved – purchased or kidnapped from the villages, their families, their homes, their ways of life. We find rationalizations to wage wars against each other or to conduct pogroms, ethnic cleansings, genocides, “eugenicides,” against people whom we lived with for generations or millennia and, when the wiser ones among us look back – or even contemplate what is being done or what is about to be occur – we cannot find a sufficient reason for all of the suffering that we have caused. Yet a vast majority of us go through our lives, year-to-year, without giving these matters a thought. We are aware of them, but we do not feel guilt or shame for these travesties.
The best of us are entirely capable of lying to our family members, our best friends, and certainly to people we know in passing or don’t really know at all. Human justice systems are based on whether we can ferret out the truth by listening to a series of competing lies. If our guilt and shame interrupt system was better, the guilty would be overcome by shame and would report to the nearest penal colony. But it doesn’t work like this. Some of us break our moral codes regularly and live with whatever guilt and shame our minds serve up. In the case of the sociopaths and psychopaths among us, it may be that these critically human tools are missing altogether (I’m not an expert in this matter, which is why I leave my statement as a speculation).
But these are our Punishments, whether they are automatically deployed before it’s too late, or whether they kick in once we’ve done something trivial or profoundly wrong. Find me someone angry or fearful or emotionally stunted and withdrawn or scarred with mysterious slashes on their wrists or thighs (or heart or brain) and you will find the wages of our own realm of secrets, where what we once did, or thought of doing, or thought we did but didn’t do, or do now, occupies a portion of our mind and reminds us what it is to be human.