The Democracy of Sinners

You can learn to redirectguilt into another emotion — compassion.

Yme Woensdregt

When you do something wrong, particularly if it’s something you’ve been working on for a while and have made a little progress, you may feel a keen sense of guilt. If you’ve ever fallen off the proverbial wagon, the sense of defeat and going back to square one can be a huge kick in the gut. The guilt and self–censure can be immense.

I’ve felt it. You’ve felt it.

For me, this feeling of guilt often morphs into feelings of shame and self–loathing. I say to myself, “You should be able to do better than that. What’s wrong with you?”

Despite that, I’ve been lucky. I’ve written before about the deep, clinical depression I fell into about 15 years ago, partly because I used to be so hard on myself. Since then, I have been learning to hold these feelings in check and not let them spiral into depression. I have developed some skills in that area.

But others are not so lucky. Guilt triggers a strong rejection and devaluation of the self. Psychologists say that this slide from guilt into shame and self–loathing is natural.

One of the skills I learned is to try to redirect my guilt into another emotion — compassion.

When I do something wrong these days (and that happens a lot!) and I end up feeling guilty, I try to spend less time on telling myself I’m such a screw up and more time on how, in light of my own failures, I should be more forgiving of the failures of others. If I’m such a screw up, shouldn’t I be willing to extend sympathy, empathy and compassion to others when they make mistakes? Isn’t this part of loving others as I love myself? How can I judge others when I make similar or even worse mistakes?

In this way, my guilt becomes a trigger to extend grace to others.

That’s not easy to do. It seems much more intuitive to move from guilt into self–censure and shame. This movement from guilt to compassion for the failings of others takes some work, but it does become easier the more I work at it. It’s like anything else — it takes practice. Just like playing the piano or learning to lay bricks, compassion can only be learned by practicing endlessly.

Part of what lies behind this is G.K. Chesterton’s discussion of original sin. It’s not found in the Bible, and was first articulated by St. Augustine in the 4th century. Chesterton called it an “unattractive idea” which nevertheless results in flattening all human hierarchies. “Only with original sin can we at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.” Someone else has called this “the democracy of sinners.”

Guilt is a sign of our membership in that democracy of sinners. We are all citizens of that land, and our natural inclination is for guilt to turn into shame. Guilt doesn’t instinctively trigger compassion, but it can if you work on it. In light of my own failures, I can learn to shift away from shame to compassion. In this democracy of sinners, life would be more whole if we could all say, “If I’m making mistakes should I not extend grace for the mistakes of others as well?”

As I was thinking about this stuff, I came across a wonderful sermon preached by Paul Tillich, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. He asks, “Do you know what it means to be struck by grace?” He continues by noting that grace has nothing to do with what we believe, or what we can do, or what we might accomplish.

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.'”

As we learn to practice compassion, we receive a grace which will transform our relationships with other people, and finally also in our relationship with ourselves. We need not beat ourselves up. In the final analysis, we are accepted—and then we reach out with compassion to extend grace to all the wonderful others in our lives.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook