I’m reading philosophy. Not something I’ve done a whole lot of since school, mostly because I’ve always found it more interesting and urgent when framed in a story.
For example, Sherri S Tepper is certainly a person who has a philosophy that rings throughout her books, and her characters argue this philosophy through their actions, their interactions with each other, and sometime overtly in written conversation. Or John Barth and Salman Rushdie, who do the same things in more elegant, ornate ways, with less of a traditional storyline structure.
Now I’m planning on exploring basic life themes through the book I’m going to write. I have a character who is warming painfully from the frostbite of guilt and, strange to say, I’m not terribly familiar with guilt. I know shame better but don’t even have much sense of shame. Forgiveness, redemption, retribution…I need to get to know these things in order to question them deeply.
On a fundamental level, I am fascinated by, and confused by, the kinds of negative emotion that can ruin a life without any outside force whatsoever. I believe in personal responsibility. I believe that one must act in accordance with one’s own personal ethics in order to be a person of integrity. But when I fail to do so, my next belief is that I should learn and do better. I have never acted so out of accord that I have carried a debt of guilt.
One of the concepts I’ve been reading about is that people have a right to be punished. That only in punishing misbehavior can society help a person exorcise guilt. That guilt is responsive to punishment and forgiveness, not to change or an intention to do better.
Is this true? Capital T True or true in some limited way? Only in fiction can I ask all the questions and have different characters resolve them in various ways.
Externalizing punishment – is that the point? Making it overt and discrete, with a specific duration and an understood amount of pain? In this way, can a person release their guilt?
Do they have to trust their jury? Can one be punished improperly for the crime, given a leniency one does not agree is warranted and therefore not be released from guilt?
One of the twelves steps in AA involves contacting the people you’ve hurt. This has to be about guilt – only guilt can be expiated by forgiveness or punishment. Right? Shame is yours until you are no longer the person who acted in a way to create the shame. But then maybe it’s about proving to oneself that you have changed, that you’re not the same person and so deserve not to feel shame?
I’m all question, no answer right this minute. But that seems like a promising place to be at the beginning of this book. I know what she did, I know how she has responded to her actions up until the beginning of the book. She never dreamed a thaw was possible and is in horrific pain – worse than the shock-cushioned pain of understanding what she’d done. (No, I will not give any hints about what that act was.) Now I get to ask, through her and the people around her, all the questions I’m fascinated by.
Is self-punishment valid or does one need to be sentenced by the affected parties?
Does forgiveness by others equal release from the burden of guilt?
Can one live and love separately from one’s experience of guilt?
Once irrevocable action has been taken, can any further action balance out or pay back the harm done?
There’s a few of my questions. Answers? We’ll see.