Feeling Guilty: Maybe Not

Guilt is a teacher, love is the lesson.”

Joan Borysenko, Ph.D.

Guilt is not a feeling. Guilt is a judgement and a social/religious construct that has been drilled into our heads for so long that we actually think we “feel guilty” a good deal of the time.

I ask my clients and workshop participants to tell me where they feel their guilt in their bodies. Their faces turn into question marks; but when I ask where they hold anger, sadness, fear, joy, and love, they point to their stomachs, shoulders, backs, jaws or hearts.

Guilt then is a way to shut down or numb our feelings.

Cindy says, “I don’t want to invite my alcoholic sister to have Christmas with us this year. But I’ll ‘feel guilty’ if I don’t. She’ll be all alone and will probably just stay drunk.”

“But what do you really feel about her drinking and coming to your home that way? Are you angry, sad, or scared for your sister?” I asked her in a session.

“Yes, all of the above,” she said.

When I was growing up if my parents heard something like Cindy didn’t ask her sister to Christmas they would have thought/said she was being selfish and should feel guilty. Which looking back was code that if I didn’t come home from Christmas someday I “should feel guilty” and years ago I would have. Self-Care were not words used in our family back then in the dark ages.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If I steal from you or slander your good name or abuse you in some way and the poisonous snake in our heads we’ll call the Guilt Snakes hiss at us and bite into our brains then we must chop their heads off by admitting we were wrong, make apologies and amends, and make restitution out of our regret and remorse. This removes the snakes by putting them back in the garden where they belong. Remember, speaking of the Garden, Adam and Eve (Adam in Greek means “man” and Eve means “woman”) – neither of them felt guilty about their nakedness, but rather felt joyful at the freedom and ecstasy until someone told them they should feel guilty and grab some fig leaves. That’s a lot of guilt leaves in almost every household.

So, guilt, while not a feeling, says we’ve done something wrong and we need to put on clothes of compassion to make things right, we must not let it override our true feelings and learn how to express them appropriately.  Now shame says we are “wrong, broken, damaged, beyond repair,” but that’s a whole other blog.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through

the desert repenting…”

Mary Oliver


THE CROW’S MESSAGE: The Differences Between Depression and Despair

Despair is a haven with its own temporary form of beauty…” David Whyte

Several years ago, I gave a brief lecture to about a hundred men at a conference in Minnesota on the differences between depression and despair. During the talk a tall man standing in the back of the room began weeping. At the end of my forty-five-minute presentation I asked the man if he was okay and would he mind sharing what brought him to tears?

“For twenty-five years I have been telling my wife she had to do something, get some help or something for her depression. We fought over this a hundred times and every time she would say something like, ‘You just don’t understand. It’s not depression. It’s something else, and I would let it go for a while and then we’d get into it again. I have to go home and apologize to her and try to make amends because now after your talk I know what she was trying to tell me but just didn’t have the words. Now I know it is, and always has been, despair.”

A few years later after my divorce I went to my cabin in the Appalachian Mountains to deal with my own adult despair, not my childhood, adolescence or young adult depression. It was in that house that I read everything I could on despair. When I wasn’t reading or weeping, I stared for hours out windows and into some distant pastures, past ponds and pine trees and slowly the distinction between depression and despair came into view. Even though many educated and thoughtful people and professionals use these two words interchangeably I came to fully realize they were as different as night and day.

Depression is a biological and emotional quest for light, relief, and balance. Depression gives nothing and takes everything—sleep, food, relationships, and much more.

Despair on the other hand seeks darkness, like that of St. John of the Cross in his beautiful work, “Dark Night of the Soul,” or in the case of the Babylonian myth of the great flood. In this version of Noah and the flood the hero of the story wants desperately to know if there is any dry land to be found so he sends out birds—a sparrow, dove and they don’t return with any news at all, but the last bird he sends out is the crow and it returns with mud on its feet. When we’re in despair we are searching for the mud in our minds, art, hearts, careers, parenting, and partnering hoping to find meaning, usefulness and authenticity.

Depression does nothing to remove the masks we’ve made and worn for a lifetime. Despair’s desire is to take the ego, the personas and all the false selves and drown them under 40 days and 40 nights, or in my case, over 40 years, and watch them sink to the bottom of the flooded false self. Despair is desperate to find the truth of our existence here on earth.

Here is a little more light about the differences between depression and despair. First depression is a situational, circumstantial, or biochemical imbalance or a combination of all three. Change the situation, the circumstances for the better the depression should diminish, dissipate or disappear. If it is due to biochemical difficulties, then change the biochemistry and the depression should lessen. What we know is that only two out of ten people who are diagnosed with depression get little or no relief from pharmacology or psychotherapy or both. What is the other eight or millions really suffering from? Could it be despair that pills, nor PhD’s, or psychiatrists cannot cure?

Despair is rooted in an existential loneliness that almost everyone is afraid to admit for fear they have done something wrong. Despair is a house we eventually have to sit in until we are ready to reassess our deepest self and our interior world. It is in this house where we must unabashedly and without embarrassment or shame strip away all our false selves. Despair is the first stage of freedom and an entrance into a more genuine and real existence. Despair is the bridge that takes us from “here to there.” Despair is that lonesome valley that we all fear but must be walked through. It is the dissonance or the distance between what we thought we would do with this life and what we have actually done, who we thought we’d be and who we became.

Despair is caused by self-betrayal and giving up on our deepest desires; it is the result of the risks not taken, the love not received or spoken. As John Burnside said, “Nothing I know matters more than what never happened.” Despair is the continual frustration and even anger over the feeling that some unspoken or spoken contract or agreement with our self, each other or the divine has been broken or dishonored. It is very different and from depression and must be treated differently.

In the words of poet Mary Oliver, “…tell me about your despair, and I’ll tell you about mine.” Or as David Whyte says, “…I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned, if you can know despair or see it in others.”

So, I ask you to think a little differently now and consider, is it depression or despair that you wrestle with?

 “Life begins on the other side of despair.” Jean Paul Sartre


Unbecoming: From Despair to Love-Part 5

Read Part 1-4 first

“I keep pursuing Faith, if for no other reason than because it is the place in our life that keeps reminding us of the necessity of Love—Not the romantic love of the poets, but the practical love.”

Krista Tippet—Speaking of Faith

I can’t tell you all that I have hoped for here on this mountain this year. Somewhere along the way, perhaps walking my three animal companions through the woods on a winter afternoon I began filling the hole in my soul with Faith. I’ve learned a few important things perhaps six but still remember this one and that is by letting go of hoping and holding the hands of faith and resting in the palm of process it will cure some of the sores of Despair.

Now here is my personal dilemma—more often than not I reside restlessly between hope and faith. I’m caught between a spiritual rock and a psychological hard place. For me, many days it feels like I’m asking myself to turn loose of a lifeline (oh we think this will be a best-seller, Oh surely you and your former wife will get back together, etc. etc.) tied to the back of the ship I just fell overboard. I want to reach out to hope and let it  drag me back on deck. I hope the lifeline will be a woman who might turn and give my gray beard a second look or that God might throw one glance my way.


Faith whispers in my all but deaf ear, “you’ll get a best-seller once your ego doesn’t need one for artificial adulation that you still crave. You’re  less vain self won’t care because you have faith and just keep writing like you tell all your students for the pure joy in it. As for hoping for more money which you spend an inordinate amount of time fantasizing about you’ll finally understand the mysterious words of your friend’s poem, “animals give up all their money each year,” and you’ll remember the sparrows and the lilies of the fields. As for a woman coming into your life, perhaps not a lover, but one of the best friends you’ve ever had came your way without one ounce of effort on your part.”

Faith is something I am incapable acquiring like stocks or bonds or books from Amazon. Faith is accessed and generated from the inside out. Faith is an act of Grace where I let the wind blow, the sea be still or turbulent all the while accepting people, things, situations, comings and yes goings and even myself just as I am and allows me to “Know” not believe that I don’t have:

“to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting…” says Mary Oliver

But my fear’s screaming voice is so loud a deaf man could hear it say, “Don’t listen to this shallow, sensitive voice of Faith’s she is a deranged bear wandering in the woods of philosophy and theology and does not serve your best interests like I do. Listen to your “Happiness” psychologist, mindful of your New Age body worker/guru. They will shed light on this whole matter and get you the gifts your body and soul craves.

Fear will talk your ear off and the little faith we have right out of us especially if something doesn’t work out the way it should—a marriage, a promotion, an inheritance. I have listened to this voice so much during my life. I was afraid to leave my family, afraid to leave my hometown, afraid to leave the steady job in a retail clothing store in a windowless mall, afraid I won’t make enough money to pay my bills if I follow my passions, my purpose and yes even my pain. I was afraid then to go to college, afraid I couldn’t get my doctorate, afraid I could and end up a sterile professor longing after the youth of new students each year to round out my dull routine of a life. I was afraid that my wife would leave, afraid I’d never be with another woman again, afraid I couldn’t get it up again if I—afraid I’d get sick and become a burden to someone, afraid I’d actually die before I knew real faith and afraid that I’ll keep forgetting that “perfect love casts out fear.”