If fear is the mind killer, guilt is the heart killer. Experiencing guilt creates a wound. The wound is healed when the behavior producing the guilt is rectified. The scar that forms over the wound serves as a reminder to guide future behavior.
Living in a state of perpetual guilt, however, prevents the wound from ever healing. The wound festers. The guilt swells until it becomes an infection of empathy. The infected person devotes all her energy to coping with the constant pain of guilt. She spends all her time hunched over the wound, seeking to alleviate the pain. Focused on the wound like this, she cannot look beyond herself. A cycle develops. The guilt grows and becomes ever more painful. The pain strangles the infected’s capacity for empathy. Eventually, the infected loses her ability to act from a genuine concern for others and only acts to avoid the pain of more guilt.
The dominant culture produces this state of perpetual guilt for its members. One of the truly demonic characteristics of the dominant culture is that to survive we are forced to participate in the system that is destroying the planet. As long as this culture endures, our hands are soaked in blood.
It started long ago when some humans traded the long-term stability of true sustainability for myopic comfort. Agriculture developed. Grasslands and forests were destroyed for domesticated crops. Rivers were bled to death for the requisite water. And, climate change began.
With a more reliable food source than hunter-gatherers, agricultural humans’ population exploded. Cities developed and civilization began. Eventually, cities stripped their land bases of the necessities of life and they were forced to denude ever larger regions of natural life to support their populations. This process is thousands of years old and countless communities have fallen prey to the destruction.
Civilization rages on and most of us live on lands where the human population long ago overshot the land’s ability to produce the requisite calories and nutrition to sustain us. Wildlife populations are collapsing . More water is being poisoned everyday. We are losing topsoil at an insane pace.
To make things even worse, the dominant culture enforces a system of land ownership that transformed the natural world into mere resources that could be bought and sold. Those with the most power (read: money) may exclude the rest of us from accessing what we need to live. Even in places where there is still enough animal life, clean water, and topsoil to support humans in a sustainable manner, chances are someone “owns” that land. In other words, if we took to hunting “their” animals, drinking “their” water, foraging on “their” property, they will appeal to a governmental system to provide armed men to remove us.
So, we must follow their rules to get what we need. We must participate in this murderous system just to survive. In order to eat, we must have money to purchase the food from someone who owns the land where the food was produced or from someone who owns the store who imported the food from far away. In order to sleep, we must have money to pay someone rent for the privilege of using their shelter. In order to make this money, we must offer our labor to those who control the money.
When we sacrifice our time and our money to those in power their power becomes stronger. Their stranglehold on life gets tighter. The destruction of the world intensifies.
Many people, recognizing this, experience overwhelming guilt. They live with that open, festering wound. The wound destroys their empathy and they stop looking beyond themselves. All they want is to be free of the pain. All they want is peace of mind. And, in this quest for peace of mind, they work only for personal purity. They engage in merely personal solutions to global problems.
As they spend their time recycling, signing internet petitions, and carpooling to work, they huddle over their inflamed conscience, whispering to themselves, “At least, I am not destroying the planet.”
I understand their pain. I know what it feels like to want nothing more than to soothe the wound. I have experienced the willingness to do absolutely anything to silence the constant chatter of guilt. I internalized the guilt this culture forces on us so completely I sought to destroy the guilt by destroying myself. Twice.
The dominant culture has a vested interest in neutralizing people through guilt. If it can convince enough people that the evil is their fault and paralyze those people in a lifetime of emotional sorrow, then far less physical force is needed to subdue the masses.
Spirituality has proven a very effective means of instilling this guilt.
When I search through my earliest memories to the roots of my consciousness, I find the life-sized crucifix hanging behind the altar at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in Newburgh, Indiana where I was baptized and attended Mass every Sunday in the beginning years of my life. Even the softening effect time has on memory cannot cloud the vivid clarity of the horror I see displayed there.
An emaciated man hangs by nails driven through his hands and feet into rough-hewn boards. A crown of thorns has been placed around his head, piercing his taut skin. Blood and sweat drip down his face. His eyes roll upwards as he looks for help from the sky. None comes.
The weight of his body on the nails in his hands tears the skin and bones in his palms. The same weight on the nails in his feet have curled his toes grotesquely against the wood. The man is suffocating. With each breath, he is forced to pull himself up against the nails in his hands and push against the nails in his feet. This makes the tearing worse. He pauses between each breath, each push and pull, caught between the desire to live, to take one more breath, and the reality of the pain accompanying each effort for each breath.
As if this struggle was not excruciating enough, I can see the black and blue swelling in the man’s thighs where his femurs have been broken to make it even more difficult to push up for oxygen. Then, I see a puncture wound in the man’s abdomen, under his ribcage. Someone has stuck a lance through his lungs and into his heart to ensure the man has finally died.
I feel deeply sorry for this man. My grandmother holds me in her lap beneath this scene as I ponder the intensity of the pain this poor man has felt. My grandmother looks from my eyes to the crucifix and a strange mix of sorrow and fear is reflected in her gaze.
“Who is that, Granny?” I ask.
“That’s Jesus Christ, our Savior,” she says.
The name and these words mean nothing to me. I am still only concerned with his pain. I cannot imagine why something this terrible would ever happen to someone. My only experience with the kinds of wounds I see on this Jesus are from needles in the syringes in shots doctors have given me.
I hate shots. I hate the way the needle first breaks through skin with a violent prick. I hate the sensation produced by the needle cutting through the grains of my muscle tissue. I shudder as I imagine the feeling of a whole lance pushing through my abdominal wall, grating against the bones forming my ribcage, and finally bursting into my heart.
“Why did they do that to him?” I ask in a whisper.
“He died for our sins,” my grandmother says. ‘Sins’ is another word I’ve never heard before.
“Oh. What are ‘sins’?”
“Sins are when you do something bad,” she explains. “Every time you do something bad, they drive another nail into him.”
This idea drives through me as surely as the nails. My mind recoils. “I don’t want them to hurt him anymore.”
“I know you don’t,” my grandmother comforts me. “Be a good boy, and they won’t have any reason to hurt him.” With this, the first poisons of overwhelming guilt trickled through my heart.
I attended Catholic elementary schools and a Catholic college. Whenever I forgot that life in this world is a life of suffering, I was referred back to a crucifix. I was taught that emotional pain is the cross humans must bear: the heavier the better. The completeness of my guilt was cemented when I was taught that all humans enter the world stained by original sin. Our mere existence was accompanied by guilt.
Guilt was an indication that I had harmed my relationship with God and I must never harm my relationship with God. Whenever I felt guilt, I was told I must repair my relationship with God or risk an eternity of suffering in Hell when I died. I was told I must never offend God. I must never do anything wrong and the only way I would know I was on the right path was to keep my conscience clean.
I left my Catholic faith in my early twenties, but the damage had been done. I had been convinced that I was fundamentally flawed. I killed the Catholic God of my youth, but countless other gods filled the void haunting me as they pointed out my failures. The wound was permanently opened and every action has the potential to scratch it.
Though I deserted the original source of my guilt – Catholicism – I still witnessed trauma daily. Trauma is another effective means to cause guilt. More than 40% of people diagnosed with PTSD, for example, report guilt associated with the traumatic events they’ve experienced. When survivors of trauma blame themselves for the trauma, they often paralyze their ability to act.
Even if the trauma is not happening directly to some of us, we are all surrounded by scenes of the destruction of the natural world. This indirect trauma has been named complex post-traumatic stress disorder by Harvard doctor, Judith Herman. Her research reveals that the guilt accompanying PTSD often accompanies complex PTSD, too.
The dominant culture has created a vicious, genius cycle. Trauma leads to guilt and guilts freezes the traumatized in inaction clearing the way for those in power to create more trauma.
My guilt has gotten so bad it solidifies as a recurring image in my mind. Guilt drags me into a bare, unfinished room. The floor is raw particle board. Splinters pierce any skin that touches the floor. No walls have been built to cover the studs holding the room’s roof up. Pink, fiberglass insulation – the kind that produces a scratching sensation just from seeing it – pokes out from the gaps between the studs.
There are two versions of me in the room. The first me is crumpled in the far corner of the room, shaking and weeping. Standing over this version of me is an angry me with a baseball bat. The me-with-the-bat is screaming accusations and questions. He knows my deepest shames.
“How could you ask your parents for money, again?” the question echoes off the walls.
The me-on-the-floor dares not answer, knows that no words will suffice. No rational explanation will alleviate the guilt. The me-on-the-floor rubs himself into the floors and scratches into the insulation. “If I can just show him how much I am suffering,” I tell myself, “the me-with-the bat will be satisfied.”
But, it doesn’t work. I’ve seen the image so many times, I can read the Louisville Slugger logo on the meat of the bat as it slams across my ribs.
“You don’t make any money,” the me-with-the-bat says with derision as he swings the bat over his head.
The me-on-the-floor is resigned to wait out the beating. His only move is to roll feebly from the blow as it clacks across his spine this time.
The me-with-the-bat only continues with my litany of shame.
“The world is burning, and what are you doing?” The bat strikes.
“Do you know how you hurt everyone when you tried to kill yourself?” Wood to bone.
“Depression? Why do you keep using that as an excuse?” Thud.
I hope that soon the bat will find my skull and grant me unconsciousness.
When my mind is consumed with this image, how can I practice empathy? When I am dodging the questions and fleeing the blows of that Louisville Slugger baseball bat, how do I find energy to love? Obviously, I cannot. The bat I hit myself with in my mind pacifies my resistance as surely as any police baton in the real world could. This is, of course, the point.
It has become clear to me that the me-with-the-bat must be destroyed. The baseball bat must be knocked from his hands forever. I must rise from the floor of that unfinished room and burn it to the ground.
The dominant culture that is murdering the planet and neutralizing those with hearts still alive enough to feel the guilt associated with participating in planetary murder must similarly be destroyed. The longer we wait, the deeper the guilt will cycle, the more pain we will feel, and the longer we will be divorced from love.
In my personal life, I am taking action to destroy the control guilt has over my life. I am seeing a therapist who is helping me practice resistance when guilt seeks to drag me into the unfinished room where it will beat me with my shame. I am taking medication that helps me cut cycles of guilt short before they consume me.
On the cultural level, I’ve been presented an opportunity to stand alongside those serious about stopping the destruction. I will attend Extraction Resistance: A 3-Day Training in Direct Action to learn how to apply more than personal solutions to global problems.
The modern environmental movement is said to have started close to 60 years ago. In that time, the situation has only gotten worse. A primary reason the movement is failing is too many environmentalists are relying on personal solutions to stop global problems. We are not going to save the planet by using more efficient lightbulbs. We are not going to save the planet by carpooling to work. We are not going to save the planet by eating a strictly vegan diet. Hell, we are not going to save the planet by eating strictly anything.
We’ve tried to reduce, reuse, and recycle our way to a sustainable future for 6 decades and the destruction of that future has only intensified. We need more than personal lifestyle changes. We need more than personally responsible consumption habits. We need organized, militant, direct action.
One of the reasons the environmental movement is failing is the dominant culture holds many of us in cycles of guilt. Blinded by guilt, many of us have become consumed by our own pain. Our world shrinks to the realm of our individual actions. We desire the false peace of mind that we’ve convinced ourselves comes when we can claim we are not personally involved in the destruction. We act only to feel better.
When we are stuck in our own minds, we tend to think that the problem is solved when we can put our minds at ease. But, the problem is not simply mental. The dominant culture is physically destroying the planet. When we rise above our guilt and look beyond ourselves, we will recognize that those countless others who give us life do not need our guilt, they do not need us to maintain our personal purity, they do not need our peace of mind. They need us to stop the destruction of the planet.
When we stop the destruction of the planet, we will recover our empathy. We will act from love instead of the fear of pain. And, the wound of guilt will be free to heal.