Prerogative to be guilty

“They learned that it was a prerogative of man to become guilty – and his responsibility to overcome his guilt.” (The Will to Meaning, p. 7)

My initial definition of guilt was overly simplistic. Guilt means breaking intrinsically valuable rules. We haven’t yet talked about the person behind the action. There is a wide variation in a person’s degree of autonomy. Sometimes an occurrence is entirely out of a person’s control. There are varying degrees of intentionality as well, and one may or may not even be aware that he did something hurtful.

On one hand a person can cause damage unintentionally too. At the same time it is not enough to only look at the consequence. Water and fire and rocks and wind can do things that result in good or bad consequences, yet the elements are not considered guilty. If fire burns down a building is the fire guilty? If someone drowns in the sea is the sea guilty? No. But if a person is negligent and causes a fire to spread, he is guilty. If a person gives a firearm to a child and the child uses it to shoot someone, the adult who gave it to him is guilty. He should have known better.

Guilt is a concept of judgment. It comes as a result of attaching value to my actions and evaluating those actions. So our ability to know right from wrong, to distinguish between situations and to consciously and intentionally choose based on our knowledge is what makes us guilty or righteous, commendable or contemptible. Guilt is possible because we know and have intention in what we are doing. We are capable of distinguishing the relative value of an action, recognizing its consequence and discerning its particular meaning in a particular situation and we are therefore held accountable for doing it and for the results it brings. I could have realized and avoided the negative consequence. I could have created a positive result instead.

Thus, what’s missing from the earlier definition is the person who is breaking these valuable rules. The question is, to what extent is the person behind his actions? Frankl distinguishes between superego and conscience through the example of the dog that, having wet the carpet goes slinking behind the couch.

A human being is aware, Frankl reminds us. Humans can reflect on the meaning of what they’re doing. Unlike an animal they can think about the consequence of their actions to their relationships and the consequence to their essential humanity.

People say all kinds of things to justify their guilt. They say they have impulses they cannot control. They say they thought the other person wanted it. They say they didn’t think what they did was so terrible.

When Frankl visited prisoners in San Quentin on death row they were relieved that someone was affirming their guilt. What they did mattered. He wasn’t psychologizing their actions away with explanations of unfortunate childhoods, as psychodynamic psychologists had done. That orientation only made the prisoners feel: “So put our parents in prison, not us. Everything I did wrong was all their fault!” They needed to feel their intrinsic human worth and the responsibility that comes with it.

If there was no possibility of punishment there would be no possibility of reward. Both concepts describe the consequences of an action. If what I do is of no consequence then what difference does it make what I do? My being and manifestation of being in the world does not affect anything or anyone, nor does it effect myself. It is as if I don’t exist. Who cares if I live or die? I’ve made no imprint on the world in any case. People who want to take their own lives surely feel this way. People who have no scruples feel their actions have no consequence.

Therefore it is my prerogative, Frankl said, to be guilty because the possibility of guilt follows the possibility of freely choosing one course of action over another as autonomous, intentional, freely choosing creatures. We therefore have a right, as the creators of our actions, to take credit for our actions, for good or for bad. Since we are equally capable of choosing good or bad, and choosing wrongly is always an option, guilt is always a possibility. Without guilt, we are just victims of our circumstances and victims of our inner drives. With guilt we don’t have to be victims. We have a right to stand behind our actions and take accountability. Without the possibility of choice no value could be attached to my actions and I could not be held accountable for doing the wrong thing or applauded for doing the right thing. This says something about me as a freely choosing, autonomous responsible being.

The second half of Frankl’s sentence – that it is his responsibility to overcome guilt – means that he is called to responsibility, to transform mistakes into advantages, to right the wrong, to be victorious over evil, to be an alchemist who turns bad into good. This above all is our task – tikun olam, repairing the world.

We were not placed in a perfect world as creatures without free will, where we would only do good like pre-programmed automatons (or angels). We were put here to be partners in creation, to take this imperfect world and make it perfect. We are told choose life! Part of choosing life is giving birth to new life. Why have we been given this responsibility? Because we are capable of it and what we’re capable of doing we must do!

The connection between the two halves of Frankl’s sentence are not two disjointed ideas thrown together but they are intrinsically connected. Man’s possibility of guilt is his call to meaning to overcome guilt. His will to meaning pulls him to want to discover meaning in his very fallibility! Why have I been created this way, with the possibility for sin and failure? Is it not so that I can rise above it and discover my spiritual dimension?! In the process of overcoming my guilt this is the meaning I discover – that I don’t have to follow my urges, I don’t have to be dictated to. I don’t have to be a victim with no free will. I can freely choose to fulfill my values. Without this dynamic of the possibility for victimhood and “no choice” there would be no possibility for choice. The former serves the latter.

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