Abstract Download About Guilt, Health and Morality

Most of my self-reflection in recent months has related to the big transition I'm making from a career in religion to a career in healthcare, as I'm sure you've gathered if you've read my recent blog posts. The idea that's been bouncing around in my head lately relates to a shift in philosophical paradigm that I've gone through in the process.

I'm almost finished with my job as a youth minister, and spending a lot of time trying to sort out what's next for me in relation to religion. One of the things I realized at the beginning of this process is that - for better or worse - religion for me has always been attached to feelings of guilt. In trying to sort through why that is, one thing I've realized is that religious practice, for me, has always been related to doing what's 'right' - intellectually it's been related to figuring out what's right and 'true', and at the level of practice it's been about sorting out ways to enable myself to do what is right and 'good' or moral. This might be a generally healthy thing, I don't know, but the problem is that doing what is 'right' is an unattainable goal, and really a fundamentalist's pipe-dream. When you spend as much time agonizing about things as I tend to, you come to realize that there's no way to be sure about 'right and wrong' at the deepest levels. Life's kind of a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' endeavor in most cases, and as much potential as humans have, we're also all dumb and screwed up and immoral and imperfect, and in any case there's always more 'good' to do than we have time or energy for. And with that in mind, pursuing what's 'right' has, for me, been an ongoing process of guilt-inducing failure. It's motivated me to do a lot of things that are nice and admirable and socially responsible, but I still sit around with a general sense of not having been 'good' enough. I don't know if any of the religious communities I've belonged to intended that effect, but that's a fact of existence that I've always associated with my religious involvement.

The other thing I've experienced is that when my behavior is motivated by a sense of guilt (giving money to a charity or a church, or giving time to community service, or study, or whatever), I ultimately don't feel good about doing it - I just feel like I've fulfilled my duty, or completed my end of a transaction. Guilt has shaped my life in some positive directions - it's why I've spent so much time studying and pushed me into lots of positive roles in my various stations in life - but to be honest I'm kind of burnt out on it. I find myself resentful and pissed off by the little guilt trips we all get throughout the day from the variety of do-gooding forces in society, and generally shutting out my own internal sense of guilt about just about everything. I'm not sure that's particularly healthy. It's definitely left me feeling burnt out by all of the 'good', but also guilt-inducing, activities that have dominated my life in recent years - from trying to be a good husband to trying to be a good spiritual example for teenagers to trying to handle my money responsibly. So, ultimately, that guilt instinct, which is probably beneficial at some level, has become maladaptive.

So, organically and by happy coincidence this transition into health care combined with the decision with Angel to get ourselves into shape and not become lazy slobs in our old age have helped me to discover what seems to be a better behavior and morality-motivating paradigm for this stage of my life - pursuing the 'healthy' rather than 'right'. Pursuing the 'good', I think, pushed me towards burnout and ultimately abandonment of a lot of the 'good' things that I was doing. In the last few months, pursuing the 'healthy' has led me to pick up a lot of other things in their place - regular exercise, boundaries in relationships and work, control of our budget, a balanced life, better food, a marriage relationship that's focused on making Angel's life better, rather than 'doing what a good husband is supposed to'. In the process, my assessment is that my overall contribution to the world's general level of cosmic goodness surprisingly hasn't decreased. In any case, nothing's collapsed into the black hole of evil that wasn't headed in that direction anyway. I'm still spending a lot of my time doing the things you're supposed to.

The nice thing about 'health' is that, as amorphous as it is, there's some science behind it - we know at least a bit about what's good for human beings and society, and what's bad for them, and we know a bit about our capacities and limitations. Pursuing health is a life lived inside of the boundaries of human existence, unlike my previous pursuit of 'the good', which was a life lived in guilty and stubborn protest against those boundaries. For now it seems like focusing on health rather than 'the good' is leading to a more tolerable existence.

In relation to what this means for my religious life, your guess is probably as good as mine. I would label an awful lot of my religious experience 'unhealthy', but not all of it. (I would also label an awful lot of my religious experience 'bad', but not all of it.)


Unknown said…
Wow. I think you're really on to something here, and that it has VERY important implications for the church--what it emphasizes, what it doesn't.

As I understand it, one of the core meanings of "shalom," usually translated as "peace," is about wholeness and health. And a core meaning of the word from which we derive "salvation" is also heath and soundness.

How has the church strayed so far from that? Why is it so concerned about being "right"?

And what are it called to do?
Nathan Fireborn said…
Your ability for genuine reflection continues to astound me Tim. Great post.