Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Why Guilt?

Benjamin Franklin (1736) wrote a small paragraph about the death by smallpox of his son Francis (age 4). He wrote of how guilty he felt for years, because he had not inoculated his little boy. He wrote about how equally guilty parents whose children died despite inoculation must feel. Children could die with or without inoculation, he concluded, and guilt is part of grieving.
Years earlier, inoculation had been a very hot topic in the newspaper run by Franklin’s brother, The New England Courant. The Franklin brothers ridiculed inoculation and defamed its influential proponent, the Rev. Cotton Mather. I’m sure Franklin’s past history against inoculation added an extra emotional burden to his grieving process.

Franklin is right. Guilt is part of the grieving process. The question is: Why is guilt part of the grieving process?

Evolutionary psychologists may argue that loss must become sticky in an organism’s consciousness, so that loss is minimized in the future. Like burning pain prevents a child from touching a hot stove again. So burning emotional pain such as experienced by the loss of a child, should include guilt. Guilt brands culpability onto one’s consciousness and should prevent future loss.
Each child lost takes with her an infinite number of futures. Franklin himself said it best:

For the loss of one in ten
thereby is not merely the loss of
so many persons, but the accumulated loss of all the children
and the children’s children the deceased might have had,
multiplied by successive generations.

Benjamin Franklin (1785)

If an organism’s most important biological purpose is to survive until it reproduces, than guilt has an obvious function.

The pain of guilt is life’s way of saying “Don’t let this happen again.”

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