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The Fires of Remorse
Q: What is the usefulness of remorse?
Great question! I was hoping someone would ask about my half-formed thoughts on this subject. Initially, we might wish to note that the etymology of re-morse is to be “bitten again.” A sting that returns.
So there is a class of bad feelings that tend to haunt us even after the unpleasant event. Typically these are emotions (or evaluations) are connected with the sense that we performed wrongly. Guilt. Shame. Remorse. Embarrassment. Etc.
The precise meanings of these different words are debated. Some people view shame as a more primitive form of social control — in which your whole being is negated when you violate community standards — while guilt is a more individualized and internalized sense that your action was problematic but you might still be basically a good person (ie still worthy of mercy). Other people define these terms very differently.
Regardless of how we parse these meanings, we can see some general themes. Most notable to me is that these feelings were normalized in most traditional cultures. And that’s another way of saying that they have become very ambiguous in modern or postmodern societies.
Among folk populations and in the social operating systems found in ethno-nationalist (hereditary hierarchy) kingdoms, there is a general sense that you SHOULD feel terrible about having failed to obey the group dogma. It is often seen as quite justified if other people attack you for violating community standards. Generally speaking, your body & your person does not belong to you — it is a possession of the tribe. This seems rather grotesque from a contemporary point of view. We can see that it may have a practical role in organizing societies of a certain size for survival in dangerous circumstances but we also suspect that it was also a perverse opportunity for people to discharge their sadistic impulses against whoever violated local conformity. A bad man is a good man’s chance to act like a bad man without being treated like a bad man.
Nevermind. In today’s era of psychological individualism and self-acceptance we are no longer convinced, with a good conscience, that it is okay to shame and punish individuals for non-conformity or making-us-feel-embarrassed. We may even have internalized a moral obligation to escape from “other people’s judgments.” What we want instead is self-esteem, personal integrity, capacity to enjoy ourselves, resilience, and free growth of our thinking beyond the paranoid fear of social judgments. Think outside the box!
I grew up in a time (late 20th century) and place (North America) in which people were encouraged to get over the implied judgments of other people. There is something beautiful about that. It is a real victory in the history of civilization. However, it also might be anchored in our refusal to experience unsettling emotions.
One time in grade school, my friend Kyle and I entered into a contest. The winner would be the person who collected the most pictures of women's brassieres from the Sears’ catalogs that were provided for an art class collage.
I stashed my collection of half-cut, half-torn images in my lunch box for safekeeping. Well, wouldn't you know it, that was the day that some jocular older boys grabbed my black metal lunch box on the bus after school. I froze. Actually I don’t remember thinking or feeling anything. I apparently remained calm and waited for the situation to die down. Then, when appropriate, I regained my lunch box.
It wasn't until years later that I realized I had missed the opportunity to be burned with embarrassment.
My self-control (and, occasionally, my ability to lie plausibly) helped me avoid many situations that might otherwise have confronted me with feelings of embarrassment and guilt. Added to that, my domestic and social background was at least 50% on the side of dismissing the whole concept of guilt and social shaming beyond a certain minimal level. This was good in many respects but, after a while, you start to wonder if you’ve been missing something…
If you are lucky enough to have ended up in a situation where you are not immediately identified with the sense of other people’s judgments then you have gained a unique opportunity to explore those feelings on purpose.
The keyword here, in my view, is opportunity.
The “others” are not necessarily correct. If a person or persons suggests that I am in violation of their social instincts or that I am responsible for actions that they found upsetting — they could be right or wrong. In fact, the ethical evaluations of our whole current society may prove, in time, to have been seriously flawed. Nonetheless, I have the personal opportunity to volunteer for these feelings.
This is not about accepting or rejecting blame but, rather, is about locating subtle feelings of having violated your own goals or standards, bypassing your tendency to insulate yourself with a “righteous justification” — and then really allowing yourself to intentionally lean into that the disquieting feeling.
Accepting-or-rejecting-blame is limited. It is either social pragmatism or personal pathology. Either way, it tends to make people more homogenous. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. That doesn’t mean it has no use. Conventional standards may be an excellent way to overcome our pre-conventional habits. However, our goal as contemporary and evolving human beings is not to remain endlessly in the righteous grooves of socio-moral conformity. Instead, we wish to encourage the development of our own unique organic conscience.
The alternative (or extension) of all that is to wish to be burned by moral dissonance about the insufficiently of your actions — according to your own emerging judgments about diverse, transcultural human behavior.
Leaning voluntarily into remorse allows us to clarify our values. And it presents us with the exercise of cognitive dissonance in the creative tension between different parts of ourselves. It is important to me to be stung by the feelings of not having performed properly according to my own estimation.
Perhaps, also, if we were “esoterically minded,” we might even imagine that a nourishing energy resides within the impressions of remorse — an food that can be used to enliven, grow and clarify our authentic being.
So I would say that REMORSE, intentionally affirmed & felt into, puts you at your own leading edge.
It is not surprising that many ancient spiritual sects experimented with acts of self-humiliation. Of course this can go too far! Of course, this must be teased apart from psychological self-sabotage and the blaming habits of your family, tribe or society!
Nonetheless, it is a real developmental option that suggests the convergence of a postconventional psychology with classical self-challenging spiritual, emotional and moral practice.