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January 15, 2019

Atonement: Dealing with Guilt

Dr. Seth Kadish

I learned a long time ago you can’t take away someone else’s guilt.

As a clinical psychologist, I’d often see clients try to do this for other clients, to no avail. In fact, the person whose guilt they were trying to alleviate frequently became angry at their intrusive efforts. Trying to remove someone’s guilt, you see, is akin to trying to remove their addiction. It can’t be done without their willingness and consent.

To make matters worse, while some guilt is clearly rooted in reality, some is distorted, verging on the imaginary.

For instance, I worked with Jason, a young man who felt somewhat responsible for the current state of the economy. He was not delusional or psychotic, but had an exaggerated sense of his own ability, and responsibility, to change current affairs based on a family connection with a key government official. Jason could not be persuaded of the fallacy of his thinking.

That said, a person wanting to diminish their guilt can do so. There are a number of ways of working with guilt, though I am particularly drawn to atonement, defined by Dictionary.com as “satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury.”

By way of example, I was facilitating a group a number of years ago when an older male client raised his hand to speak and quietly informed the group, “I killed someone.” (To respect that person’s confidentiality, I’m going to change around a few of the facts but still give you the gist of his story).

Carl, a retired race car driver battling an alcohol dependency, was the passenger in a car driven by his wife. Neither was drinking. It was a bright, sunny Florida day and the sun shone in his wife’s eyes as she entered an intersection in their suburban town. Failing to see an elderly woman moving slowly through the crosswalk, Carl’s wife slammed into the woman, killing her instantly.

The group was dumbstruck. “You didn’t kill anyone, Carl,” “You did nothing wrong”, “It wasn’t your fault.” Carl was having none of it. He sat expressionless through their storm of words, waiting for them to quiet, and then explained that as a former race car driver with superb reflexes he should have been able at the last minute to wrest the wheel away from his wife or stomp on the brake with his foot.

The group members exclaimed, “No way, that’s impossible,” but Carl was persistent, relentlessly determined to hold onto his guilt. The group looked to me to correct Carl’s mistaken belief … but I know that you cannot take away another’s person’s guilt.

I then asked Carl a somewhat graphic question: had the woman’s blood spilled all over the crosswalk? Carl nodded yes. “All right. What I suggest is this. Give blood to the Red Cross until you feel you’ve given enough. Give until you feel you’ve atoned for spilling the woman’s blood.”

Carl liked the idea. It was tangible and made sense to him. He was unable to forgive himself for the accident and lacked a spiritual program or belief that would allow a higher power to forgive him. But an act of atonement might help assuage the guilt he felt at the elderly woman’s death.

I also wondered to myself if Carl had subconsciously used her death as a receptacle in which to deposit other guilt he may have experienced over the course of his life, including those around his alcoholic behaviors. We sometimes find unlikely places in which to house our guilt.

I haven’t seen or spoken with Carl in many years, but my guess is that there would have come a time when he stopped giving blood, when he realized that it was time to let go of the guilt. The accident was not his fault. Perhaps he would forgive himself and move on.

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