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Guilt as incentive

Guilt, it’s been said, is the gift that keeps on giving.  It’s the 2nd part of the 12 step saying “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” We all experience pain and guilt. They are both inevitable with guilt being one of our basic human responses to much in life. Without guilt we’d never learn, change, become kinder or more considerate persons. However, if we refuse to learn the lessons guilt has to teach us, guilt, and it’s companion shame, can inflict great damage, lock us in a nonproductive past and make us physically and mentally ill.

I’ve been reading Jane Kirkpatrick’s fictionalized biography of Natalie Curtis, a very real American ethnomusicologist who recorded Native American songs and ceremonies in the early 1900’s. Natalie Curtis was a musical prodigy who had been traumatized by being forced to chose between having a musical career or marriage and children.  Those of us who take women’s rights for granted forget it’s been less that 60 years since women have been permitted to do both. Natalie Curtis eventually found her healing in the music and relationships she experienced within Native American communities in the Southwest

At one point in the book she tells her brother, “I sometimes think what has happened to the Indians, what we’ve done to them–conquering, breaking agreements, ignoring what they bring to us–I think they walk in two worlds. Trying to honor a way of life that is disappearing. And, in a way, that’s me and all my years of practice. They’ve had to move on to something totally foreign, learn new ways, navigate laws and landscapes they’ve had no choice in. My suffering though, is self imposed, isn’t it?  

I think that’s one of the lessons of this journey.  Their suffering comes from the outside, and is so much more damaging, affecting generations…But, at least I don’t have to face judgment because of my race. The Southwest has taught me that. I’m not paralyzed. And I’m learning how the Indian people carry on. I admire their resilience. I think it flows through their music and art. Their songs and ceremonies have brought me back. I’m now a part of the larger universe of hope…I have taken steps to change. That doctor said that guilt can help make global changes if we turn it outward instead of inward.”

Guilt can help make global changes if we turn it outward instead of inward. That’s the challenge facing us today, isn’t it? What to do with the guilt and shame we all feel in relationship to our history of slavery, mistreatment of blacks and Native Americans, immigrants, and all the racial biases that shape our policies. Do we turn our guilt outward or inward? Hide in denial or own it and move on? It has not been, nor will it be easy.  My hope and prayer is the time is nearing when we collectively refuse to remain paralyzed and become willing to take positive steps to change.

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