A study of guilt

I am interested in the man running behind the presidential limousine, for I know that for the rest of his life, his heart would be pierced by the spike of guilt.

It was a sunny day in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963. In the rear of the blue and grey Lincoln continental convertible, sitting on the back seat, were the president of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline. She was wearing a pink suit and a matching pillbox hat, her smile was contagious and the friendly crowds, standing along the road, watching the slow-moving, celebratory motorcade, were cheering, waving their hands.

After the motorcade made a left turn from Houston onto Elm Street, the shots that killed JFK were fired. Clint Hill, a United States Secret Service Special Agent, who was standing on the running board of a Cadillac driving immediately behind the presidential limousine, jumped off into Elm Street and ran forward. He grabbed onto a handrail at the back of the accelerating limousine, stepped upon the rear bumper, leaned forward and crawled over the trunk. He then pulled himself to the back seat and positioned his strong, wide body, hovering over the president and Mrs. Kennedy.

Twelve years later, in an interview on ’60-Minutes’, Clint seemed to be in intense psychological pain, his voice breaking, his eyes watering; his soul seemed torn. In a question about JFK’s assassination, Clint was asked: “You got there (to the presidential limousine) in less than 2 seconds, Clint, you couldn’t have gotten there (earlier, and you could not have saved the president from being killed by taking, absorbing the third bullet with your own body), you surely do not have any sense of guilt over that.” “Yes, I certainly do,” Mr. Hill responded, “I have a great deal of guilt about that. I will live with that to my grave.”

In their review of the scientific literature about guilt, Dr. Serena Carni and her colleagues from the University of Roma, Italy, state that guilt, like shame, like pride, belongs to a group of emotions that “have the function of orienting people toward ethical actions” and “affects humans’ behavior when they carry out transgressions that violate social and cultural standards.”

I am interested in Clint Hill, the man who was running behind the presidential limousine, for I know that to live on Earth, to breath its air, to be surrounded by fellow beings, and not to feel guilty – is nearly impossible. Wherever human relationships exist, guilt lives, always directed at the self and always residing entirely within the individual: you can love others, and love yourself; you can hate others, and hate yourself; but when the emotion called guilt creeps in, you remain painfully alone, punishing yourself profoundly, severely, sometimes for a thought, sometimes for a deed, always for what you were raised to define as unethical, immoral, or just “not right.”

Watching the interview with Clint Hill, I feel for the man and his suffering. I ask myself: being such a powerful self-punishing emotion, is the feeling of guilt even necessary to be a moral person? And as I search the World Wide Web, I find that Gilbert Harman, a philosopher at Princeton University, specializing in ethics and the philosophy of mind, does not think so. In an article called ‘Guilt-Free Morality’, after elaborating on the subject the way only philosophers can, he states: “I am objecting to the sort of guilt that involves internalized self-punishment… I find that there are morally good people not susceptible to such guilt… that it would be a good thing to try to bring up children in such a way that they are not susceptible to such guilt, and that it would be a good thing for those moral people who feel guilt to try to eliminate it.”

Excited, I entertained myself by trying to eliminate not just my own guilt, but other emotions as well, some self-punishing and some punishing to others: anger, sadness, envy, jealousy, fright and anxiety came first on my list. Love, although a positive emotion, came next, for fear it will be unrequited. I even considered ending joy and happiness, for the prospect of over-indulgence makes me anxious. Then, in a non-philosophical moment, I returned to reality, where emotions, even the most seemingly redundant, illogical, still exist.

It is time for me to leave the self-punishing guilt and to examine the other side of guilt, the “friendly” guilt — the emotion that motivates us to adapt to societal and cultural rules, that allows us to live as a society. I will return, in a fortnight, to tell you a story about a doctor and a patient, about “friendly” guilt, and how guilt makes better doctors.

Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist working at Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital. He sees patients in Laurium, Houghton and L’Anse. Contact him at smadjar@yahoo.com.