When one commits a wrong, can it be undone? Let’s be more precise. Given that one’s caused harm, what, short of reversing the damage or abandoning one’s conscience, (and if anything), can alleviate, in this person, the feeling that he has wronged the universe?
Maybe doing “contravening goods” can “cancel out” the wrongs and alleviate this sense of wrongdoing. But this seems troublesome. Do good deeds “undo” bad ones? Or do they exist only independently, accumulating alongside the ever-constant collection of wrongs? Good and bad deeds live in separate universes, we might imagine; they’re eternally unable to counter-balance each other. Dents cannot be undone by new paint.
There’s a sense, though, in which the “equal and opposite” possibility attains credibility. If we attribute the root of guilt to a conviction that one’s “presence in this world has made things worse” and that, in a sense, one’s “lost the right to be here,” then shockingly good deeds, which, contrarily, suggest to the doer that “without one’s presence, well, heaven knows what state these people would’ve been in” might combat one’s feeling of non-belonging, and hence, of guilt. The feeling of undeserved existence wouldn’t merely be accompanied by a feeling of indispensable existence. It would be replaced.
This attribution reduces the moral legitimacy of one’s existence to a balancing act between good and bad deeds. “Has the good of this life’s impact outweighed the bad? Would the world be on the whole better, or worse, in absence of this impact?” Temporarily ignoring the attribution’s validity, it’s immediately appealing: it promises an unbounded possibility to change one’s moral legitimacy. Under this outlook, our problem is solved.
But is the attribution correct? Perhaps the root of guilt lies not in an enumeration of one’s impact, a trivial counting task. Perhaps it lies in a conviction that the doer himself is fundamentally flawed. And this conviction, it seems, cannot be reversed.
Symmetry and universality
Is this conviction reasonable? Or, are we prone, thinking “asymmetrically” through our own small restricted window, to censure our own wrongdoings with singular heft? It’s easy to feel guilty when one resides in the (inertia-laden) state of mind in which only one person in the world (guess who) has done anything wrong. Unless the guilty deems himself special, however – reason should argue otherwise – this view must be incorrect. There are seven billion of us on this planet. It’s likely that the guilty man is, though perhaps indeed guilty, not singular in his guilt. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10-23) (1). We may conceive of ourselves as challenged, flawed, and in very good company.
This alone serves as a consolation. The consoling effect itself, moreover, tells us something about guilt: the feeling of guilt really does, to some extent, involve a characterization of the guilty as irreversibly flawed. This conviction must crumble in light of the argument from symmetry.
Is the story over? Our healthy company in the realm of the imperfect might console us holistically. Dread regarding the suffering of the victim, however, is likely to constantly return. How might we redeem our guilt if the wrong done is still out there, out in the world?
Texture and depth
Our impacts on this world are complex and multifaceted. They’re vast, multitextured, multicolored networks, with dips, ebbs, flows, and nuances. To single out wrongs as tangible entities is not just painful, it’s a logical fallacy! Wrongs as discrete entities don’t exist.
We’re not automatons, doers of single deeds, one after the other, running through a list like a carriage return. We’re people, with family, friends, and acquaintances; passions, vocations, and hobbies; mistakes, troubles, and regrets. These don’t form a list, but a landscape, of variegated color and form. Thinking thus seems to help.
Realizing that we’re people – as if it were something that needed to be realized – goes a shockingly long way.
Universal forgiveness and guilt
Through one thing alone, I believe, an ultimate solution could be reached. All must universally forgive one another, and share in each other’s guilt; all must recognize that we’re each guilty before each other. “For all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth,” said Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. “No one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime… If I had been righteous myself, perhaps there would have been no criminal standing before me… Take upon yourself the crime of the criminal your heart is judging, take it at once, suffer for him yourself, and let him go without reproach.” (2) The stroke of genius is that by eliminating all moral debts – permitting a “moral jailbreak“, as it were – we become, ultimately, better off than if we’d kept strict ledgers.
Confess all wrongdoings. Again from The Brothers Karamazov, the Mysterious Visitor: “God has had pity on me and is calling me to Himself. I know I am dying, but I feel joy and peace for the first time after so many years. There was heaven in my heart from the moment I had done what I had to do… And now I feel God near, my heart rejoices as in Heaven … I have done my duty.” (2)
Finally, even the guiltiest among us, crushed by the weight of their penitence, might remember Father Zosima’s words, most powerful of all:
“If you sin yourself and grieve even unto death for your sins or for your sudden sin, then rejoice for others, rejoice for the righteous man, rejoice that if you have sinned, he is righteous and has not sinned.” (2)