No guilt, no action

I think it’s an understatement to say that modern society is constantly telling us to stop feeling guilty. It’s not your fault. Turn off the outside world. Take care of yourself. 

But perhaps this advice is not always right. A team at the University of Washington recently published an article about guilt in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, that looked at the negative side of ridding oneself of guilt. They studied people using mindfulness training apps that teach users to reduce feelings of guilt. 

Lead author and Assistant Professor, Andrew Hafenbrack found that “Meditating can reduce feelings of guilt, thus limiting reactions like generosity that are important to human relationships.” Their research showed that people who were randomly assigned to meditate were 17% less likely to donate to a hypothetical person in need than those who had been assigned to not meditate.

He went on to say that “Meditating for short periods of time is a tool that can make people feel better, like popping an aspirin when they have a headache,” Hafenbrack said. “We have a responsibility as researchers to share not only the many positive effects of meditation, but also the inadvertent side effects, such as the potential for it to occasionally relax one’s moral compass.” See the UW News article on the study for more information.

So what does this mean for us as Catholics or Christians, as those who are called to care for the earth and the poor? Comedians love to make fun of Catholic guilt, but there is a good side to feeling guilty! It means we are sympathetic and have empathy for others, especially those who are suffering. 

And frankly, it will take a little guilt, and a lot of empathy to take the necessary steps we need to take, both as individuals and as a collective society to address the climate crisis and climate injustice like the urgent crises they are. And isn’t it better for us as empathetic citizens to suffer a little guilt today, so that our children and grandchildren, the poor and marginalized, and the other species we share this planet with will suffer a lot less in 25, 50, or 100 years from now?

Too much guilt can, of course, be a bad thing. If you are suffering from depression or mental illness, please seek help. If you having a mental health crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Working together, we can help take care of our common home. 

Paul Litwin

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