Writing in order to ask questions

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.



  1. Isn’t the experience the answer to the question? Or rather, if The journey is the adventure doesn’t the answer to a question of guilt and redemption lie in the actual adventure of the discovery rather than the conclusion? The wonderful thing about fiction is; the answer can be a resounding “YES!”
    !!!Cursus haud praesidens!!!

  2. Wow… Thats a lot of questions. I’m on the fence with most of them. However , I side with James a little . I believe its the road we take thru most areas , not the completion of the Journey. Learning and is through experience not from a thought pattern or opinion of another person. Each person is an individual , different and from many cloths of experience. That is the fiber of that particular being.

  3. If you do something for someone else they feel gratitude and you feel exalted—but you did whatever you did for yourself, not for them. If you do something that hurts instead of helps another they feel resentment or anger and you feel ashamed or guilt—-but again you did whatever you did for/and to yourself, not them. So I see gratitude and guilt as emotions that waste mental time and energy. Look beyond the emotional reaction in others and yourself to see why you acted the way you did, where you meant the action to take you, what effect you wished it to have for your benefit, and why it didn’t. And learn without guilt—-or gratitude.

  4. That makes sense, Dad, and obviously I’ve been living like that for the most part. But I’m fascinated by the ways that people get caught up in and overwhelmed by these feelings of guilt. I guess some people get caught up in feelings of exaltation, but I see a lot more people who have guilt that bothers them like a sore tooth. They either worry it with their tongue and keep it sore all the time, or they develop an entire way of living that avoids the sore spot. Either way, they are being shaped by it directly.

    Also, phrasing it as “benefit” – that avoids the moral/ethical tones. I know that you believe in right and wrong. This is about doing something that you believe to be wrong and how you deal with that.

    @James and Tom = Yes. The journey from being a person you can’t respect to being a person you can respect – that is the story. There would be no book, no story, without a journey. This book may not wrap up in that “here we are and now we know” kind of way, so I hope a lot of people can go with the idea that the destination is not the worthier part!

  5. Every time I hear a parent tell a child, “Bad boy (girl)”, instead of something like, “That’s not a nice thing to do”, or even, “That’s a bad thing to do”, I cringe. When you judge a child instead of the action, when a person is raised being told 10 to 100 times a day they are a bad person how can it not carry into adulthood as an underlying feeling of guilt and inferiority—–you’ve been judged by the only authority you know and been found “guilty”. And people will find something to attach those feelings to. If you were able to pick their feelings apart and get to the reasons most could probably find a lot of things in their life to attach them to while not realizing it all started before they even have conscious memory. And so the guilt feelings are so deep rooted and such an integral part of the person even if they understood it they wouldn’t be able to rid themselves of the feelings. And some search for a verification of self by finding friends and a mate who will reinforce their guilt. Which in it’s extreme form leads to acceptance of abuse since they feel they deserve it.

  6. Oh yes, I forgot—I don’t believe in right and wrong. I believe the same act can be right for one and wrong for another. The situation and person performing the act changes it’s being right or wrong. You would have to be able to read the actors mind to know for sure if the act was right or wrong in that situation.

  7. Guilt as “internalized badness”…good concept. Definitely going to be worked into the book!

    But what about those situations where you really take an action that really has horrifying consequences? Or do you believe that people always, deep down, believe that whatever they’ve done is okay…or they wouldn’t have done it to begin with?

    I guess regret is a different animal from guilt. Regretting an action is the result of improperly assessing the possible reactions/consequences?

  8. Now your getting it, you feel guilt when you do something you know from experience or being taught is wrong (obviously I mean it’s wrong in your view of reality). If you do something that turns out bad you might feel guilt but usually it will only be regret. It’s a purposeful breaking of your own rules—and the subsequent hurting of another, or at least “getting caught at hurting another” that causes guilt. Hummmmm, will you feel guilt if you don’t get caught or if you do something “wrong” but it doesn’t hurt another?

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