Guilt As a Cornerstone of American Exceptionalism

We are capable of remorse

As I see it, the most significant difference between the United States of America and other developed countries is the public expression of guilt when its ideals are not met, when it slips up in its efforts to become “a more perfect union.” That guilt goes all the way back to the Declaration of Independence.

Our willingness to name and rectify our flaws is, I believe, the true source of American exceptionalism. In some respects, we are seen as a bumbling but well-intentioned adolescent nation, whose antics endear us to the rest of a world that has seen endless suffering, wars, and dynasties come and go.

The Netherlands, South Africa, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Japan, China, France, Prussia, England, and the Ottoman Empire displayed little, if any, remorse for their brutal behavior as they colonized known and unknown worlds. Here in the United States, however, we have put our moral heart on display for all the world to see. Typically, we show remorse through legislative arguments and amendments to the Constitution; through varied iterations of a Marshall Plan to rebuild distant locations when we bomb or otherwise decimate a population; through political activism and research; and through continuous investigative reporting by a relatively free press.

Showing our American heart was probably not required, but because we did so, we demonstrated our moral dominance over those cousins who made no claim to care about equality. We are proud that we have embraced different values from those of our class-ridden parents and centuries of European and Judeo-Christian tradition. It is this ideal that makes the world want to come to our shores and that also makes us feel guilty, especially since the end of the Second World War.

Natural vs. Unnatural Guilt

The aforementioned is natural guilt, laudable guilt, a guilt that makes us a more perfect union over time – if we can achieve it. We operate on the assumption that, while we have made significant improvements, we can be even better and we can do better. We are immersed in good intent.

The downside of openness is that we must hold ourselves accountable to our compassionate heart in a public way. Denying our imperfection is what renders us ordinary, just like everyone else; on the other hand, claiming it leaves us open not only to admiration, but also to ceaseless and sometimes brutal criticism. Can we tolerate that? Can we withstand the onslaught of those we inevitably disappoint?

Understandably, guilt can make us want to hide our imperfections; not only from others but also from ourselves. It is this latter hiding, dissembling, even downright lying that becomes the source of our eventual undoing, our unnatural guilt. This insidious form of guilt reflects a deadly combination of self-loathing and arrogance, rooted in misguided, false assumptions that humanity is unworthy, that some groups are more unworthy than others, and that human nature is fundamentally and eternally sinful. My mother said it well, quoting some anonymous source: “God don’t make no ugly.” We are all worthy.

In one of Jane Roberts’ many books, there is a discussion by her source of wisdom called Seth that makes an important distinction between natural and unnatural guilt. Natural guilt helps us navigate the material world and avoid negative and even dire consequences. Unnatural guilt, on the other hand, makes us obsess endlessly about perfection and imperfection; about purity, the threat of defilement, and extinction. It causes us to get stalled in our progress and to project attributes onto others that we notice in ourselves but cannot face.

It is unnatural guilt that brings about arrogance, self-loathing, prejudice, fanaticism, and dictatorship. Natural guilt keeps us from repeating mistakes as we gradually recognize the pain we cause others and ourselves; it moves to eliminate the pain. Natural guilt can become a source of compassion and empathy, derived from individual and collective experience. Unnatural guilt, on the other hand, becomes a source of narcissism: it bolsters the lies we tell about the world, about nature, about others, and, most importantly, about ourselves.

As a nation, the United States is full of both natural and unnatural guilt. We celebrate the generosity of the indigenous peoples of the Americas who helped the early settlers survive in harsh conditions. On the other hand, we wipe them out, steal their land and natural resources, and force them to retreat into smaller and smaller spaces where the land is often not even arable. Similarly, we relegate African Americans to a state of perpetual servitude, then proudly wear Michael Jordan tank tops with the number 23 emblazoned on our own and our children’s backs. As slaves they are dangerous; as sub-human mascots they are endearing. We celebrate Henry Louis Gates as a Harvard scholar and then arrest him on his own front porch because a black man should not be living in that neighborhood. While battling and deriding China’s imperialism from one side of our collective mouth, we import and export vast sums of money, debt, and products from the other side. We flout our dominance in the world, and yet we put our land, iconic buildings, industries, and even our stock market up for sale to foreign nationals and companies. For Native and African Americans, their very being triggers a guilt that must not be named: the sin of coveting the land of others, and the sin of slavery when a centerpiece of the Judeo-Christian story recounts the evils of slavery and the exodus from Egypt.

This interplay of natural and unnatural guilt literally makes us crazy as a country and as a force in the world. We cannot sort out who we are and how we should behave, so we whine and flail and make excuses as the pendulum swings wildly from one extreme to the other.

But our ideals are like no others in the modern Western world. We dream of utopian community, a society free from persecution without the need for force, harsh penalties, and undue violence. We subscribe to higher secular laws, a morality that is meant to govern our social discourse and behavior while protecting the freedom to practice or refrain from practicing any specific religion. We proclaim equality for all. We pronounce the importance of the separation of church and state and the right to privacy. And then we elect a president who is the antithesis of all most of us claim to stand for.

We are full of contradiction and unnatural guilt.

Contradictions persist. We believe in our strength as a nation, but we also believe that we stand on the precipice of racial and cultural extinction because evil and the “Other” are stronger still.

Contradiction is inevitable, but we can handle it. We can embrace our contradictions and still be strong enough to persist, survive, and even thrive as a vibrant and diverse nation. Our natural guilt helps us catch our shortcomings and oversights, as well as our cultural sins of omission and commission. When we see that some members of our society are left out, we create laws to address past oversights. There is a sense of natural guilt expressed here, fixing and clarifying existing harms. There is appropriate conscience and consciousness, even though we seem to be backsliding right now.

Because we are one in spite of ourselves, all harm done to the other inevitably comes back to bite us when and where we least expect it: in our homes and schools and churches and playgrounds and streets – and in our political parties and physical bodies.

What begins as natural guilt gets contorted and distorted, resulting in an effort to exterminate the very people who remind us of our transgressions and imperfection. The effort to hide our unsavory history backfires and becomes the primary source of unnatural guilt in the present moment.

Could This Be the Beginning of the End of America As We Know It?

Guilt, whether natural or unnatural, signifies the presence of conscience and of self-consciousness. Theoretically, the absence of guilt could represent innocence and the absence of malice. On the other hand, it could represent the absence of a moral compass, which might prove to be the telltale sign of a civilization in decline.

What shall we do with our national guilt? Which history will have been written about us one hundred years from now? We are writing that history by the choices we make now. From the vantage point of the future, what will have been your story, my story, the story we created together in our search for a “more perfect union?” Did we abandon that ideal or did we move it forward?

The best gift we have is the gift of choice, a possibility that eluded many world cultures over the centuries. Choice: use it or lose it, and in so doing, take responsibility for our own individual and shared future.

Can we return to a state of natural guilt without getting trapped by denial and unnatural guilt? Can we hold on to moral leadership in the world without having the U.S. become yet another case study in failed democracy? Time will tell and individual actions matter in addition to, or in spite of, collective behavior. In the meantime, I choose the path of natural guilt and an open heart: I will claim my imperfections openly and without flinching, and then I will try to fix them.

Published by Helen L. Stewart PhD

Endlessly curious, writer, speaker, blogger, intuitive, author, consultant. Retired university academic administrator and faculty member. Citizen of the world. Traveler. Human being. Perhaps in reverse order.

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