A few years ago, a young Australian woman came to see me at my temple in Perth. Monks are often sought out for advice on people’s problems, perhaps because we’re cheap — we never charge a fee. She was tormented with guilt. Some six months previously, she had been working in a remote mining community in the north of Western Australia. The work was hard and the money good, but there was not much to do in the hours off work. So one Sunday afternoon she suggested to her best friend, and her best friend’s boyfriend, that they all go out for a drive in the bush. Her girlfriend didn’t want to go, and neither did the boy, but it was no fun going alone. So she cajoled, argued and badgered until they gave in and agreed to go on the drive in the bush.
There was an accident: the car rolled on the loose gravel road. The young woman’s girlfriend was killed; the boy was paralysed. The drive was her idea, yet she wasn’t hurt.
She told me with sorrow in her eyes: ‘If only I hadn’t forced them to go. She would still be here. He would still have his legs. I shouldn’t have made them go. I feel so terrible. I feel so guilty.’
The first thought that came into my mind was to reassure her that it wasn’t her fault. She didn’t plan to have the accident. She had no intention of hurting her friends. These things happen. Let it go. Don’t feel guilty. But the second thought that came up was, ‘I bet she’s heard that line before, hundreds of times, and it obviously hasn’t worked.’ So I paused, looked deeper into her situation, then told her it was good that she felt so guilty.
Her face changed from sorrow to surprise, and from surprise to relief. She hadn’t heard this before: that she should feel guilty. I’d guessed right. She was feeling guilty about feeling guilty. She felt guilty and everyone was telling her not to. She felt ‘double guilt’, guilt over the accident and guilt over feeling guilty. Our complicated minds work like that.
Only when we had dealt with the first layer of guilt and established that it was all right for her to feel guilty could we proceed to the next stage of the solution: What’s to be done about it?
There’s a helpful Buddhist saying: ‘Rather light a candle than complain about darkness.’
There’s always something we can do instead of feeling upset, even if that something is just sitting peacefully for a while, not complaining.
Guilt is substantially different from remorse. In our culture ‘guilty’ is a verdict hammered out on hard wood by a judge in a court. And if no one else punishes us, we will look to punish ourselves, some way or another. Guilt means punishment deep in our psyche.
So the young woman needed a penance to absolve her from guilt. Telling her to forget it and get on with life wouldn’t have worked. I suggested that she volunteer for work at her local hospital’s rehab unit, treating the casualties of road accidents. For there, I thought, she would wear away her guilt with all the hard work, and also, as usually happens in voluntary work, be helped so much by the very people she was there to help.