The New York Times has published an article called “Guilt and Atonement on the Path to Adulthood,” mainly about some University of Iowa research on guilt in children. How people feel guilt, and what they do with it, is of course one of the most important indicators of culture. Furthermore, the article gives us a picture of science and morality crossing borders – interesting in the least because such transgressions often tell us so little in fact, while claiming to undermine so much in theory.
Children have to learn to feel and place guilt; it is not automatic. Obvious enough for anyone who knows a brat child with permissive parents, or who has read the book of Proverbs. The truth must be codified in a research journal, though; and so it has been.
The article differentiates between guilt and shame in order to save the didactic features of feeling bad from any oh-so-inappropriate condemnation of people. This latter part is important, because it is one shibboleth of the post-industrial life: people are all basically good. Never mind that we just said morality has to be learned (because that would indicate an ulterior, or superior, source of that morality). The moral of this article is that we can be better if we could just come to grips with the fact that we’re good.
The article’s author rejects shame, which is rooted in (internalizing) public scorn, while accepting guilt. Guilt is defined here as a negative feeling in response to a negative action, though less directed at the person than the action; only the feeling is contained in the perpetrator. However, guilt is an internalization of an outside accusation, too. The accuser, though, is less importantly some social group, than it is some authority. Guilt, of course, is not rooted in feelings but juridical proceedings. The feeling of guilt is just the perception that you are convicted by an authority. As the author admits, guilt is learned, usually from parental authority.
However much the University of Iowa researchers or the New York Times columnists would like to affirm the learning process while also affirming the learner, a therapeutic approach does not touch this legal analogy. The problem is that in a courtroom, not only the crime but the defendant is found guilty. He really is a wrong-doer, in some sense. This perhaps explains why children not only feel bad, but in a social setting they sometimes actually seek to make atonement, which is the restoration of relationship. Again, even a child might know that the atonement is nothing without the offer being accepted, i.e. forgiveness. While remission for guilt may be sought, in the end it is out of his sorrowful hands.
The striking part of this article on “Guilt and Atonement” then, is not just that it uses a confused definition of guilt, but that it does not address atonement. To draw this post full circle, we may reiterate that culture helps define social notions of guilt and shame, and we may note further that the transmission of culture begins with child-rearing. We fundamentally misunderstand people, and explode any real usefulness of culture, when we obfuscate children’s understandings of guilt.
“The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” (Prov 29:15)
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.