Jay Michaelson
Guilt and Groundedness, p.2

What is the significance of that guilt? That is the question that has haunted me. I know that guilt is an emotional response that is, essentially, content-neutral. The substantive elements of guilt are learned, and so if the presence or absence of guilt is itself used as a barometer for ethics, you don't get anywhere. However, there is still a sense that deep guilt is, somehow, an indicator of what we "really" know to be true, even if only for ourselves. We have a conventional geology of the self, in which some things are "deep down," and others are just "on the surface," and when you feel something deep down, it feels more "real" than that which is on the surface. As I relate in more detail in an upcoming issue of White Crane: The Journal of Gay Men's Spirituality, I came to see the falsity of this model during a long retreat I sat last year. An intense feeling of self-hatred had been triggered by a remark made by one of the teachers -- he had said, in a dharma talk, that "you can change anything about yourself," and I angrily responded, inside, "no you can't!" Over the course of several days, I came to see how attached I was to the belief that sexuality can't be changed -- because, I realized, I might still change it if I could.

At first, I interpreted this feeling according to the conventional geology of the self. This is what I felt "deep down." The doubt and guilt told me that this is was what I "really" believed, despite all the rationale I'd proffered to myself and to others. . But then I came to see that the entire geology is flawed -- deep down inside what? 'Really' believed how? All that was actually present in my experience were different beliefs. One belief (gay is bad) had the character -- the "feeling tone" in Buddhist language -- of being long-held. Another belief (gay is good) didn't, even though I knew it made more sense, and had led me to more happiness and more spiritual capacity. The former belief wasn't really "deeper" or truer. It was merely its character -- its feeling -- that was being interpreted as "deep."

To suppose the belief, or the guilt, will simply disappear makes light of the depth of homophobia and homophobic acculturation. Being gay, when I was growing up, wasn't just an unfortunate characteristic, or a disfavored choice -- it was a curse, and I believed it. So, it's unrealistic to suppose that all traces of the belief will simply vanish. Instead, what I, and I think many GLBT people, have learned to do is, as above, recognize the guilt and know that its foundation is not true.

I've noticed, though, that the pang of conscience I feel around unethical acts, and the alienation I feel around failing to perform ritual religious acts, is almost exactly identical to this guilt. And, because of my sexuality, I know that the facile belief that "your conscience should be your guide" is untrue. Your conscience is conditioned by all sorts of social and other phenomena. The conscience of someone raised vegetarian recoils at the thought of eating meat; a carnivore's doesn't. My conscience recoils at eating shrimp, but not at drinking non-kosher wine -- primarily because that was my family's practice, only secondarily because I think it makes sense. The conscience of someone from an older culture might be quite at peace with war and killing in the name of honor, or tribe; yours might not. There is no rhyme or reason to the operation of conscience; guilt adheres to sublime and ridiculous all the same.

Where, then, is guilt? One might like to say: use it when it's useful, ignore it when it isn't, but don't let it do the deciding. Make your decision based on introspection, examination, consideration -- but don't "listen to your heart." Or rather: cultivate the process of heart-listening, but know that the substance will always be conditioned.

But what about religious practice? Let's look at actions between humans and God first -- mitzvot bein adam l'makom. If I admit that I'm keeping kosher mainly because of guilt, as I think I and many religious people would have to do if we were intellectually honest, then shouldn't I reevaluate my practice? Of course, keeping kosher is mostly harmless. It gets in the way of my enjoying myself in restaurants, but it doesn't hurt anyone. Still, "enjoying myself in restaurants" is a (small) part of a more important value: celebrating the beauty of life, drinking deep from the world's well, sampling the varieties of experience. Why am I passing this up -- guilt? And it's not just the restaurants -- given how guilt can cause us to repress and distort ourselves, shouldn't it be thrown out entirely?

More significant, of course, are ethical actions -- actions bein adam l'havero in the Jewish formulation. Here, guilt can actually cause harm, as we favor some people over others, some land over others, and some values (e.g. freedom to make as much money as possible) over others (e.g. equality). Usually it's the political Left that gets accused of acting based on "liberal guilt." But the Right also acts according to guilt, insofar as its ethical choices are based on values which, more than anything else, just feel right. And, of course, since the Right's guilt is conditioned by preset social structures, it does not extend to those beyond those structures' concern -- marginalized groups, the environment, and so on. Thus guilt harms by its absence as well.

By way of conclusion, I want to look at the phenomenon of groundedness as a way of illuminating something about guilt. At first blush, these may seem like two completely different states of being. Yet in my experience, they are intimately connected. I have found that the less I listen to guilt, the less grounded I am in a root tradition. When I let go of guilt, I feel a bit more like Huck Finn, on my own, on a raft, outside of civilization and its comforts. The traditionalists are right: guilt keeps us moored, grounded in traditional ethics and feeling secure.

It's that feeling of groundedness that is so important, I think, for many religious people. Some would say this feeling is merely one of safety in a time of uncertainty and insecurity. But I think it is deeper than wanting to be "safe." I think groundedness is a primal need, underlying the strongest bonds we have, like those of family and relationship. We may romanticize the wandering gypsy, but on an emotional, if not a physical level, most of us want to have roots.

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Top image: Lynne Marie, Step
Lower image: Lynne Marie, Reach
September 2005

Sephardic Literature: The Real Hidden Legacy
David Shasha
plus Jordan Elgrably on the Sephardic Intellectual

Guilt and Groundedness
Jay Michaelson

David: The Original Drama King
Dan Friedman

The Doctor
Sarah Schulman

After sepia photographs
Hila Ratzabi

A War in Postcards
Alon K. Raab

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Witnessing Marshall Meyer
Josh Feigelson

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Aaron Hamburger

The Ghost and the Machine
Jay Michaelson

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