Thursday, January 28, 2010

The New Guilt

This afternoon, while I was studying the Kitab-i-Iqan with my friend Samuel, he made a very interesting comment.  It really got me thinking.

He said, "I no longer feel guilty for doing something bad.  I feel guilty for not doing something good."

As you can imagine, my first thought (which probably says quite a bit about me) was that he now does bad things with impunity.  But, obviously, that is not what he meant.  He's too good a guy for that.

I think what he meant is actually a very profound statement on the focus of the Baha'i teachings.  This faith of ours is not a "thou shalt not" faith, but rather a faith of what we should do.  It is not a faith of inaction, but one that is all about action.

As Tahirih famously said to Vahid, while the young 'Abdu'l-Baha sat on her lap, "Let deeds, not words, testify to thy faith, if thou art a man of true learning."  Or in the words of Baha'u'llah, "Let deeds, not words, be your adorning."

To start, though, let's look at the definition of guilt, as opposed to shame.  Why?  Because Baha'u'llah, in The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, says, "...there existeth in man a faculty which deterreth him from, and guardeth him against, whatever is unworthy and unseemly, and which is known as his sense of shame."  So whereas I do not think guilt really has that much of a place within the Faith (at least the way I practice it), I do believe that shame is quite important, as long as we have a reasonable understanding of what it means.

Guilt, I think, is an emotional response to something we have done, or not done, in the past.  Shame is what prevents us from doing something in the future.  Guilt is past tense, while shame is future tense.

Many faiths have used guilt as a tool to keep people from doing something, and it is quite effective, as guilt is often a source of paralysis.  However, it is always after the fact.  You have to done something in order to feel guilty about it.

Shame, however, is more effective as it prevents you from committing the act in the first place.

So what does this have to with Samuel's comment?

Our faith is one concerned with spiritual growth, as opposed to "salvation" (now there's a theme for another article).  There are numerous times in the Writings where we read that we should not be concerned about heaven as a reward, but instead focus on the love of God, or on spiritual growth.  'Abdu'l-Baha said it best: In the highest prayer, men pray only for the love of God, not because they fear Him or hell, or hope for bounty or heaven.

We pray because it is good for us to pray, not only because it is a law.  (Perhaps it is a law because it is good for us?)  When we don't pray, we tend to be more irritable, and things just don't quite "go our way".

We don't eat or drink during the fast because it is good for us to not do that.  But fasting is not about "not eating"; it is about fasting, an action in and of itself.

We give to charity because it is good for us to give to charity and exercise our generosity.  And when we don't give to charity, when we buy that extra shot of espresso in our latte instead of giving (as opposed to "in addition to giving"), then we feel guilty about it.

And that's what Samuel meant.

As Baha'is, we feel guilty if we don't say our obligatory prayer, or forget to read from the Writings every morning or evening, or neglect to smile to a small child.

Ours is a faith of love and progress: progress of the individual soul, and the continual advancement of society.  It is a faith in which our laws are not seen as limiting our ability to act, but rather as "the choice wine", leading us to a higher understanding of the world around us.

There is a beautiful line I once heard: For some, God uses His iron finger to carve His Law in stone so that they will see and remember.  For others, He touches their hearts with love and they can never forget.

And that is how I feel about our Faith.  Baha'u'llah has touched our hearts with His love, and we can never forget this.

Shame is, if I can call it that, the new guilt, for we act, and continually strive to act more in accord with His teachings.  And it is this sense of shame that prevents us from acting contrary to His advice.

1 comment:

  1. This is so beautiful, and so true!

    I just read a book by the Dalai Lama (I'm a Baha'i who looks for truth wherever is may be found...) wherein he said that he had no use for guilt. It causes you to keep reliving the past in the present moment. A total waste of time. Shame, on the otherhand, he saw as a virtue because it causes you to improve your actions in the present moment, continuing on into the future.

    Thank you for sharing this!