Knowing the universe puts itself in equilibrium would alleviate my guilt.
March 3, 2012 5:17 PM   Subscribe

How do you reconcile with guilt and the feeling that something bad should happen to you as a consequence of past mistakes?

YANMTherapist, but your advice could help.

I am not begging for bad things to happen in my life (perhaps I am), but I'm having a hard time shaking the feeling that the mistakes I've made in the past should come back to me. Say the sum of the bad things I've done is equivalent to stealing $500 and cheated on an SO in the past year. (In reality, I've let people down, I've angered them-- all run-of-the-mill, interpersonal mistakes that are part of life.) I feel like I would have a peace of mind only if I've also lost $500 and an SO cheated on me.

Example is that I backed out of an important commitment last year. I've wasted someone's time, energy and trust by not following through. I now wish:
1) Something good happens to that person, to balance out for the bad I've caused
2) Something bad happens to me (now or later), so bad output to the world = world's bad output to me

Basically, I wish the world was in equilibrium, but is it?? I believe that (2) happens without me worrying about it, but what about (1)? It's troubling to think that people that have been wronged do not get compensated in some way later.

EX: Victims of acid attacks hopefully will have an awesome life in their reincarnation while perpetrators suffer for a looong time.

BUT, I also am not comfortable with the idea of an eye for an eye b/c it's destructive. Is there an alternative to that for a balanced world? Going back to my hypothetical $500 and a cheated SO-- what's the constructive way to deal with loss and hurt relationships? Do you wish good on those you've hurt, and how to turn that into reality?

What's the constructive way to deal with guilt?
posted by ichomp to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
"Example is that I backed out of an important commitment last year."

Do you have to frame this as something "bad"? For example, a good part of this scenario could possibly be that you didn't make a commitment to something that you were not totally into, thereby saving you and the other person unnecessary pain. There is something positive in every situation.
posted by amodelcitizen at 5:35 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Speaking as someone who's just had a person back out of a commitment to do a cool project with them... and several people do it half-way... I would not be mollified if I thought there were on ask.metafilter writing this, FWIW. One, I understand (a reasonable person understands) there are reasons (given there are reasons). Unless lives are hanging in the balance, it's fine, you know. Whatever, nothing's that important unless it involves someone's heath or central aspects of their physical/mental/emotional well-being anyway. I really would hope that they wouldn't feel guilt after bailing, from my pov, 'cause I feel guilt would be inherently selfish in that situation, as if it's about them rather than about the project. If you're going to feel guilty, just go ahead and follow through. If you don't follow through, resolve to follow through on the future and make sure you don't make half-hearted commitments with people in the future. Try to focus on this thing you will and won't do, and if you commit to doing said thing, make sure you do it unless you land in the hospital first, for example. If you feel you can't make such a commitment, simply say 'no'. That is what I wish for. Not that the person would feel bad, but that they'd done me the courtesy of saying no to start with. Please. Say no next time, if you don't mean 'yes'.

However. To the extent that it's about a project/commitment/action you meant to take and didn't, and genuinely wanted and intended to follow through with, simply look for strategies and ways to make sure you don't get distracted, procrastinate, stay motivated, etc. Not because you owe it to the person, but because you owe it to yourself and to the project you've agreed to take on. The only worthwhile way of saying 'sorry' to the universe is to shape your future word so that it means exactly what it says. That would bring a satisfactory amount of 'balance' to the cosmos.

Speaking of balance, the idea that the universe is 'fair' in the sense of 'x for y' is easily disproved-- you've just disproved it. Accept the evidence that in fact your desire for fairness does not hew to reality, and try to see what sort of morality you can create in that context (that is, the context of reality). The universe is too chaotic and random to be fair. Sometimes things go wrong just 'cause they do, just like 'sometimes babies are born with incurable diseases' and 'sometimes bunnies get crushed under cars' and 'sometimes we say exactly the opposite of what we mean' and 'sometimes English teachers end up in Biology'. Stuff happens. The universe has enough random 'noise' as a matter of course that it doesn't skew its basic coherency if more noise is introduced, since reality has... give built in. So to speak. Basically, nothing you do can possibly mess up the universe, for better or for worse. The universe is very very big and very much not about you at all. This can be seen as a relief if you allow it to. Nothing you do will bring or take away equilibrium on a universal level because you are a tiny bit of tininess in a vast expanse of vastness. Imagine a zillionth-trillionth zero in a string of random numbers, that just turned from zero to three-- exactly what cosmic effect might that have? Certainly some effect, but what cosmic effect? Pretty much none. That little zero isn't you-- it's probably all of humanity put together.

So yeah, just do what it takes to follow through next time, or quit while you're ahead.
posted by reenka at 5:41 PM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I strongly, strongly encourage you to read Start Where You Are, by Pema Chodron. I think you have an unhelpfully idiosyncratic take on karma and balance. The universe is not keeping a scorecard. That isn't what the concept of karma means.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:43 PM on March 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: This is my approach to guilt - loosely based on Jewish theology:
1. Guilt is there for a reason. It is telling you that you violated your own values, that you did something that you believe is wrong. Give it the attention that it deserves.
2. What can you do to make it right? Is there a way to make amends without making things worse? If you can't make it right with the specific person, is there something you related that you can do? If you stole $500, give it back with an apology. (If you can't, really can't, not just don't want to confess and apologize, then give $500+ to a related charity)
3. Figure out what you need to do for yourself so you don't make the same mistake again. (If you say, "I will sin and repent and then sin and repent again, the first repentance doesn't count.) Then follow through.
4. Release the guilt - it has served its purpose. (Religiously I would say, ask God for forgiveness and you will receive it but there is no reason you need to involve God if that is not your world-view.)
posted by metahawk at 5:44 PM on March 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

All you can do is your damned best. Always do your damned best -- it's all you can do.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 5:51 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the good responses.

@Sidhedevil: I'm reading Start Where You Are right now at the recommendation of many Mefites-- there's a lot of understanding I could gain from it for this and other situations.

@reenka: Yes, I'm the person that backed out of the cool project halfway so your POV is needed :-(. For selfish reasons I did not say No from the start, and it caused a lot of pain for both parties. Going forward I need to stop doing that.. it is comforting to know that 1) my actions have zilch effect on the overall scheme and 2) what the other party would really want, rather than me simply feeling guilty. Thanks.
posted by ichomp at 6:25 PM on March 3, 2012

Basically, I wish the world was in equilibrium, but is it??

No, it isn't. The world isn't fair. It's nice to try to make it more fair, but wishing for something slightly bad to happen to yourself in some kind of weird way that would actually make you feel better isn't a very effective way to do that. Just try to do the right thing in the future. You're burdening yourself with trying to thinking of ways for everything to even out. Guess what? Things don't always even out. Sometimes there is justice (someone commits a crime and goes to jail), but sometimes there isn't (someone commits a crime without being caught, and an innocent person who's mistaken for the criminal is wrongly convicted). If you want to imagine that the attacker is going to be reincarnated into a life of suffering, you're free to do that, but there's no evidence for it.
posted by John Cohen at 6:49 PM on March 3, 2012

2) Something bad happens to me (now or later), so bad output to the world = world's bad output to me

If bad things happened to you, it would probably impede your ability to help others, which is the number one activity you could be engaging in right now to restore your sense of self-worth. So, instead of wishing for ill to befall you, wish for peace so that you can more effectively right the wrongs you encounter, large or small.
posted by hermitosis at 7:23 PM on March 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am NOT being sarcastic when i offer you praise for being self aware and thinking about how your actions effect others around you. Good job for thinking and being aware!

No, the world isn't balanced in any way. Ultimately, it is comprised of total chaos. Aside from some natural beauty that exists around us, the only other real beauty in this world is the result of people like you who learn from their mistakes and move on with the intent to do good things.

The first quarter of my life was spent with my being a horrible ruffian. Some of the things I was involved in resulted in serious injury to innocent people. Sometime in my mid teens I got a wake up call. I don't even recall what it was, but I do remember seeing myself as a participant in the world for the first time.

Since then I've made a very serious effort to be an agent of good things. I keep my eyes open to be helpful, have my heart open to listen, and generally I am very aware of how I react to and deal with people.

What I do is actually kind of selfish, because I am very aware of the fact that I'm trying to elude the retribution that I might deserve. On the other hand though, life is much more rewarding. I feel connected. I feel like I've paid my dues, but that it's not about paying dues anymore. It's just where I wish I was in the first place.

Good luck to you and do good things!
posted by snsranch at 7:47 PM on March 3, 2012

Basically, I wish the world was in equilibrium, but is it??

Think that through and that's basically suggesting that people are starving in the Horn of Africa because they somehow "deserve" this for doing something really really bad, or that for the people who survive life will later be unimaginably wonderful, or that each of those millions of lives of horror are balanced out by millions of westerners living utterly charmed lives with no fear, loss, hunger, or poverty.

None of that is true, theoretically, experientially or mathematically. The world does not work that way.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:32 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nobody deserves anything. Good or bad.

Firstly, you are human. Forgive yourself. If you can seek forgiveness for those you have harmed, do so. Remember some may never forgive. For them, you can only forgive yourself for failing a relationship once possessed.

Secondly your guilt and yourself needs to recognize there are so many tomorrow's ahead. In these next days/months/years/decades you will have new opportunities to fulfill the promises not made.

When they appear, like i_am_a_fiesta says, do what you can do. Be prepared to say no to promises you can't keep. Be realistic in yourself and see what others seek in your cooperation. Future opportunities are not the place to repent for the past, they are there to be events in themselves.
posted by Bodrik at 8:41 PM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you feel guilty about something, don't wait for the universe to make you pay, just do it yourself.

There are a lot of people who have been let down in this world, so do something for them. Make a donation to a charity or volunteer at a soup kitchen.
posted by elizeh at 9:23 PM on March 3, 2012

I think your perspective is very interesting - it sounds similar to believing in a cosmic judge who gives out verdicts, but is silent on what the sentence should be.

You ask how you can right your wrongs - it's a strange question, because you doubtlessly already know the answer. If you steal $500, you should give it back. If you cheat on a SO, you should apologize to them, let them know how terrible you feel for your mistake, and so on.

I'm sure you already know that and you probably do all those things, so maybe you feel that these actions don't count. Just like it wouldn't count if you came up with your own sentence and punished yourself for your crime. It has to be done properly, registered with the proper authorities. That's why it seems close to believing that God/Karma is judging you, but somehow failing to punish you. You expect an official punishment because you believe the judgment has been officially rendered.

Needless to say, this is not a conscious belief - talking about Karma, you probably don't believe in the traditional God. You know this, but I think maybe you cannot fully accept it for some reason - maybe it's too horrifying to think that you could possibly be evil, totally get away with it and no-one would ever know who did it.

Or maybe something like, life may not be fair, but we can take comfort in the belief that there is something or someone who is keeping official records of how unfair it is. An even more radical non-belief is that we lack even this basic record-keeping function of God.
posted by AlsoMike at 10:11 PM on March 3, 2012

"Basically, I wish the world was in equilibrium, but is it??"

Surely it is right? I would guess the world is, in total, always at equilibrium. That equilibrium is just not predicated on your (or my) sense of fair, or your guilt, or you desire for salvation or damnation. That equilibrium exists regardless of what you or I do or don't do.

If you make a mistake and honestly look inward and want to learn from that mistake and move forward...then what more could be asked? What more would YOU ask of someone else in your shoes?
posted by ian1977 at 10:17 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I also am not comfortable with the idea of an eye for an eye b/c it's destructive. Is there an alternative to that for a balanced world?

What goes around comes around. I've heard it said that Karma is what you say Yes to.

For example:
If you let someone down big time, you are saying yes to a whole range of negative things involving human relations.

If you say yes to stealing money, you are saying yes to having boundaries broken and personal spaces not respected. Either you or the people you care for, same difference.

If you say yes to loving kindness, helping strangers, being considerate, following through, abiding by an ethical structure of behaviours then those things will be in your life with frequency.

So, the friend you let down - they say yes to following through so they will have good things happen to them in time, regardless of your past actions. And so on. This is not 'The Secret' woo-woo, it is about how we craft our perspective about our place in the world, and therefore the way we live in it.

If you want punishment for your sins (which are not unconscionable, but you'd not like to repeat/invite too often), go give your time and patience and follow through to someone else who could really do with someone saying 'yes'.
posted by Kerasia at 10:31 PM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

"karma" (as understood by many westerners) is bunk. People do not generally "get what they deserve". That does not mean you shouldn't try to live conscientiously, probably mostly for its own sake. The trick is to define "conscientiously".

One issue here is....this stuff that's bothering you so much? The counterparty may not have even noticed. On the other hand, some innocuous action on your part may have been interpreted very negatively by someone you don't even realize you affected.

These form some of the reasons I long gave up feeling guilty...simply a waste of time.
posted by telstar at 12:40 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't mention, anywhere, whether you actually tried apologising and making good the loss suffered by the other person.

Mind you, apologising and making amends are exceedingly rare. Most people just try to remind themselves that they're a good person, forgive themselves (because forgiving is a gift you give to yourself, in popular culture) and move on.

Since you haven't managed to do that, apparently you're obsessively wishing that some cosmic force would come along and make you a victim of something so that... What? You will feel better? Or the person you let down will hear about your suffering and rejoice in it so that you'll be friends again because now you're even?

Please try to recognise that you have some agency in what you do and it's not the job of supernatural forces to do things you should be doing yourself. The New Testament has basic scripts for sorting out conflict, maybe you should start there.
posted by tel3path at 2:05 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

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