- Doug Taylor and Rabbi Morton
"If guilt can be measured in gallons, I have an oil tanker full," I said as the white sphere, moving at slightly under warp six, streaked three inches past my face.
"Why is that?" asked my friend, the King of Rational Thought.
"I don't know," I replied, picking up the Ping-Pong ball and marveling at how a physical object could move so fast through space and not disintegrate. "I guess I was just born guilty."
"Hmmm," he said, casually. "That doesn't sound very precise."
"8-1. Your serve. What do you mean?"
"Just that. You're feeling guilty, yet you don't know why? You have no idea?"
"OK," I said, as we rallied again. "Here are some examples. I don't feel like I work hard enough at my job. I don't feel like I spend enough time with my kids. I don't feel like I work in the yard as much as I should."
"And," I said with a grimace as I attempted to slam the return down his throat, "I haven't waxed my car in three months."
I missed the end of the table. 9-1.
"I see," he said. "Tell me. What is the purpose of guilt?"
"Huh? The purpose of guilt? Well it's to let you know when you've done something wrong. It's to make you feel guilty when you've been bad. It's your conscience telling you when you've messed up." Why was he asking me this? Isn't guilt obvious?
"Is guilt an emotion?" he queried.
"Well, sure," I replied.
"So are you saying that an emotion is the yardstick by which you measure the correctness of your behavior?" he asked, spinning the ball so expertly that I swear it did a U-turn when it hit my side of the table.
I swung and missed. 10-1. "But you can't ignore your conscience," I protested. "Besides, wasn't it some great philosopher who said 'let your conscience be your guide'?"
He raised an eyebrow. "That was Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio."
"Look," he said. "Let me offer a radical suggestion. The only valid purpose of guilt is to prompt you to investigate - with your rational mind - whether or not you did the right thing. That's all. Beyond that, guilt is just another emotion that clouds your view of reality. Guilt is by no means a measure of whether you did something wrong. You should know by now that you can't rely on your emotions to determine whether you've acted properly or not. People have all kinds of misplaced guilt. Take you, for instance."
"What about me?"
"How many hours did you work last week?"
"Uh, oh about 70."
"And you're feeling guilty that you should have worked harder?"
"And didn't you tell me that you spent all last weekend on a camping trip with your kids?"
"Well, yeah, but-"
"And the week before that, you took them to the county fair?"
"Yes, but I-"
"And didn't you tell me that your yard won some kind of neighborhood gardening award?"
"Yeah, but my wife did most of the work-"
"No offense, but I'd say you have a whole oil tanker full of misplaced guilt. You've got to measure your actions in terms of relevant standards. Remember, the only purpose of guilt is to prompt you to make a rational investigation. The sole question to be answered is, did I do the right thing? The rest of guilt you can toss."
He leaned over the table at me. "And by all means," he said intently, "do not let your conscience be your guide. Let your rational mind be your guide. That's why you have it."
He served and I attempted a grand slam return. The move worked, but I dipped too low and my paddle put a long scratch in the table.
"2-10," I said triumphantly. "My serve. Now, just to apply everything we've been talking about, do you think I should feel guilty about the scratch I just put in the table?"
"No" he replied.
He laughed. "It's your table."