How do we get over feelings of guilt, shame and fear when we think about who we are and past decisions we’ve made?
It’s a question I’ve asked – and have been asked – regularly, and it is a concern that a lot of people struggle with. We want to lead a good life, but from time to time we all make decisions that take us in the opposite direction from that desire.
At the same time, there is a lot of good in us. If that wasn’t true, we’d have no friends or loved ones who support and spend time with us. So how do we reconcile this suspicion that we’re a good person at heart with the feeling that we don’t always make the right choices?
To find out, I went to the Church of St Francis of Assisi in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, to speak with Father Paul Cheong, who celebrated his Sacerdotal Anniversary during the Feast of St Francis in October.
I have great admiration for Father Paul, a man who lives his faith and possesses a great understanding of the deeper nature of spirituality. He is the kind of person who never fails to leave you feeling uplifted after spending time in his presence. It’s not surprising that he’s so respected and cherished among his parishioners.
When I asked him about guilt and shame, he said we should be mindful of why those feelings are there. “If we’re living what we might call a sinful life – simply chasing pleasure and feeling good – then we can sometimes be disturbed by the Holy Spirit to bring us back to the right path.
“But if we’re trying to be a good person, trying our best to live a good life and be humble, and we feel disturbed by these kinds of feelings, it does not come from the Holy Spirit.
“We’re all driven by certain psychological needs. Even those of us in the Church, who are supposed to be removed from secular life, are driven by those same needs – all of us are human. Even when doing the right thing, we can do it for the wrong reasons, because of our vanity and desire to be recognised.”
It’s an important point and one that echoes the words of a good friend, Peter Nunis, who gave me sound advice when I told him of my struggles.
He said, “We all experience similar dilemmas, and we need to accept ourselves for who we are and who we’ve been in the past. It doesn’t mean that our past decisions haven’t happened. It means that we try to do the best we can from now on.”
According to Father Paul, the best way to overcome guilt and shame is meditation. He advised that we spend too much time “telling God what to do” through prayer. We ask for so many things – as one person put it, we can often treat God like a vending machine.
Father Paul said, “Our suffering comes from always thinking. When I spend time in meditation, I let go of myself and my thoughts, I let go of who I am. As it says in the Bible, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ What is God? God is love, always. We should live in love, not fear.
“It’s very hard to get people to practise meditation or contemplative prayer. In the silence, we sit with the Divine presence and we invite the grace of God. But when we think too much, it’s like creating clouds in the mind – they block our path to the clear sky above.”
As a child I was brought up a Christian, and I could never understand why people spoke more about fearing God than the love of God. In my experience, the ministers and priests I’ve known – those who are truly humble in their faith – were always non-judgemental, accepting, loving and kind.
On the other hand, some teachers would tell me and my classmates that we’d go to hell or God would punish us if we did something wrong. In my conversation with Father Paul, I came to understand that this isn’t the God of love or mercy in which he immerses himself.
That said, we should strive to be aware of our wrongdoings and struggles. I’ve long lost count of mine, but in overcoming those struggles, it has to be done with patience, kindness and understanding towards ourselves.
We are only human and not only do we make mistakes, we also make bad decisions that serve our short-term gain, not realising the consequences of our actions. But Peter is right: there’s nothing we can do about our past, except learn from it and apply those lessons to what we do.
As Buddhist abbot Ajahn Brahm says, guilt is a useless emotion. As long as we beat ourselves up, we can never grow, and if we can’t grow, we can’t love ourselves. In turn, we can’t hope to provide real love to those around us.
I’m grateful to Father Paul for his timely wisdom, and I think we can all benefit from keeping in mind his sage advice: Live in love, not fear.