On Guilt and Gratitude


Often when I have conversations with my more liberal friends and relatives I am perplexed at the refusal to engage in factual exchanges, at the personal ferocity involved, and at the deep confusion about Christianity that usually seeps to the surface just before the final wig-out. After much pondering I’m edging toward a dichotomous conclusion: there are basically two kinds of people – those who operate on gratitude and those who operate on guilt. Some of us sit down to a steak dinner and thank God that we are being so gloriously fed, others wolf down the steak and end up feeling bad about all the people in the world who didn’t have such a dinner, feeling that enjoying such largess makes us all evil, or feeling really awful about the dead steer. I don’t find the two attitudes melding very often; we either accept the grace of God or we get all twisted up in our own culpability – or everyone else’s.

Let’s look at the guilt. Are we guilty? Oh, most assuredly -- guilty as hell. But what are we guilty of? Wealth? In and of itself no moral code forbids it, no law prohibits it. If one accumulates wealth by selling illegal drugs, then one has committed the sin of destroying lives and breaking the law; the money isn’t at fault. Yet words like “profit” and “success” often cause sneers of derision and distaste, a sudden need for distance from those ideas, a desire to avoid guilt by association.

Strength and power seem to be problematic for the guilt crowd as well, as if some inherent nastiness is at the bottom of all triumph. Success, and the money and power that accompany it, are limited only by the quantity and quality of natural resources and the human imagination about what to do with them. Wealth isn’t a closed loop arrangement, but the guilty think it is. They assume that their success is someone else’s loss, hence the misery.

I can hear the whine now, off to my left, “But, but, but, slavery and the Indians!” Personally, none of us alive today is responsible for slavery, or for the decimation of the American Indian tribes (caused as much by benevolent – guilt-ridden – intentions as by military conquest), but the Culpability Club shoulders that blame and then sets up policies that, rather than alleviate the damage, exacerbate it. Our local, state and national programs have ruined family structure, destroyed the freedom and integrity of once great tribes, have committed, in the black community especially, genocide through easy access to abortion. In New York City, 57% of black pregnancies end in abortion. Seventy percent of African American babies are born out of wedlock, the father being eliminated as a necessity by WIC and other welfare programs. It is not a struggle to connect gang behavior, drug addiction, abuse, and poverty to this single-parent problem. Do we have actions to feel guilty about? Oh yes, and most of those deeds have sprung from the hotbed of guilt. Guilt is a vicious, downward spiral; it is not a virtue.

Part of the guilt mentality is a failure to realize and truly embrace, the fact that we are no longer living in a feudal society. Some deep dragon of collective memory must still lurk in the subconscious minds of the far left, picturing themselves handing out alms on Christmas Eve, full of haughty noblesse oblige. True, the powers that be right now seem hell bent on returning us to the Dark Ages, but we aren’t there yet. We no longer need to feel pity (second cousin to guilt) for the poor because they aren’t stuck there; they don’t have to be peasants forever. We need to be encouraging to the poor, to teach hope and possibilities along with the skills and information necessary to climb out of the poverty hole. We needn’t feel guilty about them – pity is a dangerous and damaging emotion, causing humiliation to fester in the hearts of the pitied and arrogant condescension to swell in the ones who indulge in pitying.

The healthy response to the unprecedented grandeur in which we Americans bask is gratitude. In a month we will celebrate Thanksgiving. Every year it strikes me as odd that most people roast a turkey, mash some potatoes, bake a pie and eat it all – even in households where God has not been invited. To whom they are “giving thanks” remains a mystery, but our forefathers that first Thanksgiving knew to whom they were thankful – and it wasn’t King James. What’s more, they were just thankful for a good harvest, for simple survival. Now, with struggles of Jamestown behind us, with the Joad family’s trials tucked safely into Great Depression history along with the Holocaust and all other vile and miserable occurrences, the world has finally been subdued to our pleasures and apparently our pleasures are all that really counts. Thanksgiving? Not so much anymore. Guilt must in some way be easier than merely accepting in humility what God’s grace has provided.

Yesterday I ran across a video, a digital animation, on my Facebook page showing the replication and folding of DNA strands, the division of chromosomes, and eventually, the cell. It was like watching a ballet, the choreography so beautifully coordinated, so rhythmic and lovely, the detail of the breathtaking precision and complexity so perfectly executed that it left me stunned and grateful for a God who could design and produce such an amazing system – and then, make it so common. That ballet plays out in our bodies billions of times a day. A human being can carve four faces on the front of a mountain and it’s one of the wonders of the world, and yet, look at what goes on inside each of our cells just as a matter of course. I’m on my knees.

Well, not literally – my knees have seen better days, but around us, in us, God’s gifts are piled so deep I am often overwhelmed. Gratitude, of course, for food, clothing and shelter, for whatever level of health we’ve been granted, for the air we breathe, for the spouses we marry, for the children given to us – do the guilty see them as gifts or as “women’s health issues?” Appreciation for work, for challenges, for events that seem, from one angle to be disasters, but actually end up being giant blessings.

I’ll always be grateful for being present the night our baby grandson died. We knew he wouldn’t live long, being a trisomy 13 baby; his heart wasn’t able to pump much blood up through his lungs, so as he gained weight, he lost oxygen. My husband and I were taking turns holding him the night he died and we got to see the raw power of the will to live – so strong it left no doubt of God’s will, no doubt of the source of that power. Conner was only 18 days old and riddled with more malfunctions and mutations than any little person could ever overcome, and yet he fought to stay alive – he’d stop breathing and be still for a moment and then something in his will, something deep in the tissues of his tiny body would jump start, shudder, and then pull in one more gulp of air. Over and over again. I was in awe; he had nothing to live for, but he made a valiant effort to stay here. God designed us that way – to keep going at all odds. That’s what heroes are made of and even tiny babies can be heroes; I got to see that happen. Conner himself is enjoying eternity and I am looking forward to someday getting to know him.

My point is that gratitude can happen under any conditions. Ivan, in Solzhenitzyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich finds a potato – just a potato, dirty and uncooked – but he is in a Gulag concentration camp and that potato brings him amazing joy, it brings him hope, and therefore was a great blessing. He was immensely grateful. Gratitude is not dependent on conditions; it is dependent on our willingness to recognize that we are here at the gracious will of God. If we can be grateful for a potato, even when there is no scarcity of food, then we can be filled with joy. 

Of the two available attitudes – guilt and gratitude – it’s gratitude that makes us happy, that allows us to enjoy our lives without encroaching on the will of others. Guilt drags us down and there is no need for it. Two thousand years ago Jesus Christ hung on the cross and finally said, “It is finished.” And so it is – all guilt has been paid for – what remains is for us to respond to that with a gratitude so deep that, using the gifts God gave us, we live out the lives He gave us in wonder and love.

Works Consulted