Sunday, April 23, 2006

Blessed discomfort

One of the most powerful experiences I had in medical school was amputating a foot. The patient was prepped and draped for surgery and the attending handed me the knife. I eased the scalpel through the flesh and circumscribed the tibia and fibula right above the ankle. A little sawing later and the foot was gone.

The amputation was necessary because the gentleman had intractable infection from an ulcer on his foot that was caused because neurological damage had dampened his ability to feel pain. That's right, without pain, he was unable to properly care for himself and react to what would otherwise be noxious stimuli. We followed up my amputation a few days later with another hack, this time just below the knee. He felt fine after both surgeries--no pain. Then he died.

There are times when pain is not helpful. Cancer patients often have intractable pain that offers no physiological benefit. Luckily, physicians know when pain is helpful and when it isn't and can agressively treat pathologic pain.

Then there is guilt, angst, shame, etc.--all forms of psychological pain. All of which, I believe, are normally healthy important parts of the human experience. There are exceptions to be sure, but I have less confidence in those who claim to know when psychological pain is good or bad for you. Oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, anti-social personality disorder--these are only a few examples of disorders that are associated with feeling no guilt or shame.

Pain (whether somatic or psychological) is inherently uncomfortable and we will try to rid ourselves of it. But, stepping outside ourselves, we should see that it serves a purpose. It's crucial for the management of the creature. I remember on my mission when a stake missionary got into a debate about relativism with a woman we were teaching. She said she left God because she was sick of all the guilt. He pointed out that if it's true that there's a God, then the guilt is a good thing. It's a way for your conscience to guide your actions. It was all in all a very interesting conversation. One that happened long enough ago that I don't remember all the details. The only thing that stuck with me was that guilt could be a good thing.

I'm very cautious before dismissing feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety, even though I know some of it is harmful. I also recognize that fear has a much more important and legitimate place in our lives than some are willing to give it. Sorting out when pain is relevant and when it is pathological is a great challenge, and I'm reluctant to accept the advice I see so often that happiness and a pain-free existence are some sort of ideal. They are not. And I've got two legs to prove it.

I've tried to leave this vague enough that specifics of when guilt or shame is or is not appropriate does not become the focus. But I would challenge all who feel negative feelings to consider that they may be more valuable than you realize. They may be telling you something crucial about yourself. You might consider them part of the wholesome spectrum of the human emotional experience, not something to battle. For one thing, you won't win that battle. If you do, you've lost in other ways.

20 comments:

Chris (hurricane) said...

I agree that guilt and its relatives can be useful emotions, and they are emotions that all normal, psychologically healthy people feel. But I can think of no circumstances where guilt, if not processed, leads to anything positive.

I think guilt is one of the most destructive of all human emotions.

Another Other said...

I loved this entry, and, as someone who is about to embark on the journey of obtaining a degree to become a mental health professional (how's that for vague?), I absolutely loved the parallelism between physical and psychological pain and think it's a brilliant comparison.

Personally, I think pride is the most destructive of all human emotions. And compounded with pride, guilt is horrific. I think that pride is what leads those who feel legitimate guilt to, instead of resolving the issues that are impetus to the guilt, letting the guilt fester until amputation is the only option. Or in some cases, I think pride leads to the premature amputation of guilty regions of the psyche, which instead of leading to healing, leads to ignorance of where the psyche was trying to go, and what gangrenous thought process or mental stasis (or true mistake for that matter) was the cause of discontent. In other words, I think guilt is most obscenely counterproductive in the psyche of one too prideful to decipher either the guilt’s true origins (because it's too painful), or the reasons why his self-perception is allowing guilty feelings to corrupt his positive state of being when they perhaps shouldn't. Guilt, in the mind of someone who has done his best to jettison pride, is a vehicle of change and positive reconstruction in the wake of poor decision making or incorrect and insensitive thinking. And let's face it, we all make poor decisions, and we all think incorrectly and insensitively sometimes.. It would be a shame not to feel guilt. Progress would be entirely stifled.

Basically, I think true guilt is only destructive in cases where people aren’t mature enough to recognize it for what it is, and respond to it for what it’s saying. Naturally, as -L- pointed out, there are cases where guilt is completely pathological, such as as a byproduct of the experiences felt by the sexually abused, for example. For the most part, though, there is usually a genuinely good reason one is feeling guilt. Guilt can either be one of the most destructive OR the most productive human emotions. I can’t cite examples because they’re too personal, but one of the most important self corrections I ever made (and this has nothing to do with gayness, fyi, and it was a BIGGIE) was the result of healthy feelings of guilt, and a healthy response to them.

If we had no guilt, we would have NO reason to self-correct. More importantly, we would have nothing to INDICATE where self-correction was prudent and necessary for our progress as human beings. Those that live their lives in such a way that they feel no guilt are cheating themselves of the ability to reach their full potential.

I'm not trying to say that there aren't cases where guilt is counterproductive. It's always a shame to see good people allowing themselves to be weighed down by unnecessary guilt. What I'm saying though is that I agree with -L- in that the battle isn't to remove guilt from our lives, but is more to identify its validity and origins and respond to it in the best way possible, which much of the time entails change. And, especially amongst certain groups, MUCH too much emphasis is placed on getting rid of guilt because it's "just a byproduct of religion and society", and not at all enough is placed on identifying and responding to guilt that is legitimate and then correcting behavior.

Dave Walter said...

To address one particular scenario: Guilt stemming from one's belief that homosexual behavior is inherently wrong/sinful is NEVER valid. It's the belief that needs to be changed.

Another Other said...

One of the greatest fallacies I see proffered by you, Dave--and I've seen it in many instances--is the idea that certain intersocial behaviors are or should be ubiquitously accepted and acceptable. This is simply impossible. Lines MUST be drawn in interhuman interactions whether you like the idea or not. The question is where.

Cases in point: while I don't think that sexually physical interactions between men are appropriate, I believe that, in the spectrum of human interaction, there are myriad physical interactions between men that are completely fine and, in fact, healthy. I would NEVER be such a sophist as to claim that ALL physical behavior between men is abominable simply because I believe that certain physical behaviors between men are. That superlative idea, to point out the obvious, is the polar opposite of what you are proposing, and I hope it demonstrates the preposterous nature of your ideology.

Furthermore, if what you are saying is true, I should believe that ANY male on male interaction is OK. One obvious (to most) exception would be sexaul interactions with children. According to the "rule" as you have it laid out, you would be opining that there should be no guilt felt by a 50 year old man who sexually interacts with 6 year old boys because it falls within the categorically "guilt-free" arena of "homosexual behavior."

While I realize that this case is extreme, it is so for a purpose. Clearly, lines NEED to be drawn somwhere, whether one wishes to accept that fact or not. Guilt is something that helps us draw those lines. Just because you've expunged your capacity to feel guilt for homosexual interactions with other men does not mean that others' guilt-feelings for doing so are inappropriate and societaly or religiously based, or "a result of beliefs that need to be changed" or whatever. The fact is, I reiterate, that lines need to be drawn somewhere. And you don't have any more expertise as to where those lines should be drawn than anybody else.

Chris (hurricane) said...

Guilt is something that helps us draw those lines.

There are myriad other ways to draw those lines.

I stand by my assertion that guilt is a (self) destructive emotion. Having a strong sense of right and wrong and having a capacity to feel remorse are far more important and healthy in my opinion than guilt--and usually lead one to a much more productive and joyful sense of self and one's place in the world.

There seems to be this sense that abandoning guilt means abandoning all morality. Nonsense.

Another Other said...

Hurc, I don't know what differentiation you make between feeling a "healthy sense of remorse" which is something you promote, and feeling guilt. Don't want to quibble over semantics here, but it's the exact same thing. Both of your comments in this thread, frankly, have seemed very self-contradictory. You say that guilt can be useful, and then that it's one of the most destructive of all human emotions in one comment, and then have the disparity between denouncing guilt and promoting "remorse" in the other. You seem conflicted on the subject.

And if you are feeling that there's "a sense that abandoning guilt means abandoning morality," in what I've said it's because that's most definitely a component of the point I'm making. The two things aren't complete equals, but they tend to go hand in hand. So, I'm glad my point is coming across, while I am sorry you think it's "nonsense."

Chris (hurricane) said...

another other--

I am retracting what I said about guilt in my first post. I really don't think guilt is useful, but I was trying to soften it because I'm sensitive to the charge that I'm trying to excuse my own decisions and behavior. So there--I think guilt is destructive and useless, at least in the sense that I think most of us feel it: self reproach for supposed inadequacy or wrongdoing. You know, like being gay. Or for living a life in accordance with a homosexual orientation.

Remorse is different. Remorse is generally about feeling of regret for one's actions. And when we do something wrong, remorse is appropriate and useful.

I no longer feel guilty about being gay, or about the actions and decisions that flow naturally from accpeting this fact of myself. I do feel remorse about certain things I have--or have not done--in many facets of my life.

Another Other said...

Ok, then. Let's go ahead and change every instance in which I said "guilt" to "remorse" because I just don't see a distinction. I think both guilt and remorse are intrinsically rooted in behavior (both acted out, as well as thought inasmuch as insensitive and inappropriate thinking requires, if entertained, some level of action).

In terms of guilt/remorse for "being gay" I think it's great that you don't feel guilty or remorseful for that aspect of who you are. I most certainly feel no guilt/remorse for being gay, and I think to do so would definitely be an example of the counterproductive byproducts of pathological guilt, which for this issue I've been fortunate enough never to feel. I mean, really, why should I? I haven't done anything to get me here? I guess the ultimate difference in our thinking (which of course is fine, just as we've agreed to disagree in the past) is that I still take responsibility for the actions that may or may not result from being gay, whereas you choose to not feel guilt/remorse (or at least choose to ignore those feelings and not respond to them) "about the actions and decisions that flow naturally from accpeting this fact of [yourself]." My personal belief is that actions are actions, and their consequences are our repsonsibility, no matter what their impetuses or our reasons or justifications for them are.

Chris (hurricane) said...

My personal belief is that actions are actions, and their consequences are our repsonsibility, no matter what their impetuses or our reasons or justifications for them are.

I agree. Indeed, why would you think I disagree with this?

The root of our disagreement--at least as I understood it--was whether or not it is wrong to act on one's homosexual attraction. You seem to be suggesting that I know it's wrong, but I just don't feel guilty about it anymore.

Another Other said...

You cannot say "I no longer feel guilty about being gay, or about the actions and decisions that flow naturally from accpeting this fact of myself" and then turn around and agree with me that "actions are actions, and their consequences are our repsonsibility, no matter what their impetuses or our reasons or justifications for them are." The two concepts are mutually exclusive.

I agree. Indeed, why would you think I disagree with this?

You'll have to exuse me if I get too personal, but I find it impossible to answer this question otherwise:

You've decided to leave your family. Fine. You've decided that the reason you feel guilt (from what I read of your latest post) is because it's not guilt for leaving your child, but because it's guilt of "being gay." Fine. But you can't claim that leaving your family under the big blanket of "but, you see, I'm gay, and it should never have happened, and I should never have started a family and now I'm being true to myself" is you taking responsibility for your actions. It's, in fact, the opposite. It's you saying "well, I made all of those mistakes about getting married and siring children before because I didn't accept my gayness. And now I'm going to make the decision to leave my family because, as coincidence has it, I now have accepted my gayness." The problem with this line of thinking is that all of your decisions are being attached not to you and your actual role in the decision making process, but to your gayness, a completely innocent bystander to the decisions of your life. Thus it is NOT you taking responsibility for your actions, but simply exusing them because of circumstantial crises.

Obviously, I don't agree with the idea of homosexual sex, and I feel that it's wrong. But don't be confused: the reason we're conversing is NOT because I'm in disaccord with you about the concept of whether or not it's wrong to act on one's homosexual attraction. That's not the fundament of our disagreement in the slightest. The fundament of our disagreement, at least in this instance, is the fact that you are weeping over the leaving of your family, and then pinning the blame on the idea that you've been conditioned to feel guilt for it, while completely overlooking the fact that you might actually be doing something unwise.

It's funny, the first comment I wrote in this thread, I wrote not having read your latest blog entry yet. But when I read it this morning, the relevance of this discussion was born home.

I, as a spectator and not someone in your shoes admittedly, think there is a reason you are feeling guilt about this beyond "I'm still guilty about being gay," and I think it's very unfortunate you so easily sweep a remorse so profound that it makes you weep under the carpet as guilt over something so remote. That's just not a concept I comprehend, because I've never had a moment where I felt guilty over being gay. I've, at times, felt remorseful over certain actions I've made that I may not have made were I not gay. But I have trouble comprehending the idea of feeling guilt/remorse for merely having homosexual attractions. And there is a distinct and crucial difference between feeling some pathological weird guilt over "being gay," and feeling remorse over what you allow yourself to do under the pretense of "it's okay because I'm gay." And THAT'S the fundament of our disagreement.

Is it not possible that the remorse you feel is actual remorse, screaming at you because the path you've decided to take is not the right one? If it wasn't the right path, how else would your psyche let you know?

Dave Walter said...

I said: "To address one particular scenario: Guilt stemming from one's belief that homosexual behavior is inherently wrong/sinful is NEVER valid."

To state that a little differently: Guilt that is associated with the belief that homosexual behavior is by its very nature -- i.e., always -- wrong, has no validity.

Another Other equated that concept with arguing that a 50-year-old should not feel guilty about having sex with a six-year old.

My hypothesis is that such wild distortion is not consciously deliberate, but an unconscious psychological defense mechanism on the part of one who is fearful of embracing his homosexuality.

Chris (hurricane) said...

another other--

I opened myself up to this by talking about my personal life, so that's on me, but I find your last post to me to be incredibly judgmental. Though we have conversed some offline, you know next to nothing about my situation. You know next to nothing about my ongoing relationship with my wife and my children. You know next to nothing about how I have taken responsibility for my decisions. And you certainly know next to nothing about what I am regretful about in my life. I can tell you this--I do not regret that I was married for over ten years and I certainly do not regret my children. The only thing I'm leaving, my friend, is my marriage. My children and my wife are still integral parts of my life and I theirs.

I expect such judgment from many quarters, but it always astonishes me when it comes from other gay Mormons. I wish you luck on your journey and only hope--for your sake--that you find it easier ten years down the road than I did.

Another Other said...

Thank you for your well wishes, Hurc. I hope the same.

As for my judgment, you have to understand that when I think of your situation, I think about in the context of my wife's family when her grandpa made the same mistake, squelching the same feelings of remorse with the same idealistic view that his situation would be "different." I just can't fathom how one can think that he can have his family and leave them or "the marriage." It's a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too. I truly hope your plans to somehow maintain a relationship with your family all come to fruition. But, for obvious reasons, I have my doubts, and I think at least somebody should be saying it.

It reminds me of Carol Lynn Pearson. Goodbye, I Love You (which you may or may not have read) is the story of a man who leaves his family written from the perspective of his wife. It ends tragically, but with the hope that her children will be fine because, even though he left, he maintained a semblance of a relationship with them. The ending is filled with hope.

I recently spoke to Carol Lynne Pearson. She told me basically that the hopes that she had for her childrens' well-being were not realized, and that they were MUCH worse off for his leaving than she ever imagined. She explained in what horrific ways her husband's leaving affected her children. It was horrifying, and I felt anew the deep reservoirs of sadness for a family corrupted by the idea that the father can leave, and that it somehow won't hurt them. It will. It always will. So, it's not necessarily that I'm judging you, but for obvious reasons I feel that I have some basis with which to judge the probable consequences of your situation, despite the particulars. Definitely more basis than most people. So, just take it for what it's worth to you (which seems to be nothing, lamentably). Ultimately, I hope you and your family are completely and totally happy, whatever that means.

As for you, Dave. Uhhh, yeah. Nice attempt. Why don't you try actually addressing what I said instead of brushing it off as me not embracing my gayness next time. Like I said before, the comparison was very deliberate and wasn't at all unconsious. And it's a valid one, if you go back and read it. I wasn't equating the two, as you said. I'd re-explain it, but I think it's pretty well set-out if you give it another read. And, let's face it, I could just as easily say that your refusal to actually respond in any kind of non-3rd-grade-accusatory way to the logic of what I'm saying is you subconciously realizng that your embracing of homosexuality leaves you feeling empty and unwhole and that your compulsive need to disseminate the idea that "embracing homosexuality" is some kind of panacea is simply you trying to justify your life and find company for your misery. We can point fingers all day long. That's why I prefer actually discussing topics, rather than warding off the ones that hurt or challenge us with big blanket accusations that someone hasn't come to "understand themselves" or "embrace who they are." That tactic is very jejune, and proves nothing but your inability to come up with a legitimate response to what I've said.

Chris (hurricane) said...

another other--

You're catching me on a bad day, so I'll just go ahead and apologize now if I come across as an asshole.

Would it help to tell you that I'm currently reading a book about how difficult and detrimental divorce can be to children--even when the divorce is a "good" one? Would it help you to know that as a child of divorce myself I've agonized over what I am doing to my family? Do you want to know how often I've wept at the thought that I'm doing to my children what was done to me? What can I tell you about how difficult this is for me and how I am trying to do the right and responsible thing--even if it's not what you think I should be doing--before you climb down off of your soapbox?

Somebody should be saying it? Please. I was Mormon. I know the party line here. I preached it myself. I know that as far as the Church is concerned I have but one choice here: put on a brave face and stick it out, continuing to believe that my homosexuality is some perverse cross God gave me to bear. Somebody should be saying it? Are you kidding? Mine is a distinctly minority voice in Mormondom and even here in the gay bloggernacle. It's me and Dave Walter--and he isn't even a Mormon!

I'm not your wife's grandfather. I'm not Gerald Pearson. And neither is my wife your wife's grandmother or Carol Lynn Pearson. Is this an ideal situation for any of us? No. But I have connected with men who have traveled this road and have come out of it better fathers and good parenting partners with their former wives. In fact, I spend one evening a month with dozens of men who are gay and were married and have children. There are stories of terrible heartache among them. And there are stories of great love and understanding and triumph.

I'll say it again: I'm not your wife's grandfather. But I'm also not a fool. I know that the life I am choosing is not ideal. And I know that maintaining a sense of family for my children and my wife will require a great deal of work and sacrifice for all of us. The last thing I need is for people who don't know shit about me to tell me that it can't be done.

Up until now I have made it a point of not telling those of you who are gay and Mormon and married that you are fooling yourself if you think you can stick it out. The statistics do not paint an optimistic picture for those in mixed orientation marriages. They don't last, not in the church and not out of the church. But I will honor you for your integrity and your desire to do what you believe in your heart to be right for yourself and your family and your God. I will support you in any way I can. I will hold out hope for you and faith in your ability to not be defined by statistics.

All I ask is that you do the same for me.

Foxx said...

It's a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too.

This phrase baffles me. Isn't that what having cake is for? To eat it?

Stupid English language idioms.

;)

Foxx said...

Oh, I looked it up and I understand it now: if you eat your cake, you don't have it anymore.

-L- said...

Holy crap!!!

I didn't think there would be as much blood and gore in the comments as there was in the post!

I watched and kept wondering whether it would be better to jump in or let things play out. I thought about just closing off the comments. I don't want anyone to feel personally attacked or uncomfortable on my blog (hence my reluctance to site specific examples in the post itself!). Despite what strikes me as a "no fault" conversation, I'm very sorry that goal appears to have been unmet. I feel so... guilty. ;-)

Everything I want to say about the specifics of the previous discussion now seems inappropriate. Except a brief comment for Foxx:

Foxx: Thank you. You crack me up. And I don't mean that all mean or anything. I really mean you made me smile after a lot of frowning. :)

Other than that, I'm just going to go back and comment on the post itself. (I love commenting on myself! ha!)

Examples of good guilt: in response to lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, killing, etc. Not much processing necessary--just guilt over wrong-doing.

Examples of bad guilt: in response to someone else's bad choices (he wouldn't have committed suicide if only I had...), for innate qualities like sexual orientation, etc.

The trick is, to use Hurc's word, processing the guilt in a way that doesn't assume up front whether it is good or bad. Processing should, in my opinion, use the light of Christ to address the unhealthy kind without dismissing or minimizing the sanctifying kind. And that's not to say that rational assessment and discussion doesn't have an important place in the process, but there are pitfalls as are pointed out in this quote from Foxx's blog:
"Joseph Goebbels, propoganda minister for the Third Reich is usually attributed coinage of the phrase, "Repeat a lie a thousand times, and it becomes truth." Unfortunately, this rule of thumb seems to apply directly to the lies we tell ourselves."

I hope, sincerely, that all involved can leave this discussion unscathed and believing one another's genuine desires for mutual happiness and resolution to our common struggles.

Dave Walter said...

Why don't you try actually addressing what I said instead of brushing it off as me not embracing my gayness next time.

Addressing what you said is as simple as brushing it off to your inability to embrace your gayness.

I'll follow up, on my blog, within the next several days.

Chris (hurricane) said...

I feel badly that I took this all so personally, and I'm hoping another other and I can shake hands and move on as brothers who care about each other.

That said, this is personal for me, and I get incredibly frustrated when doing the best I can doesn't seem to be good enough. But I know to whom I have obligations, and I believe in my heart that I am doing right by and for them.

Another Other said...

Whew. Ok. Well, this has been interesting. I guess I should explain myself a little bit. As you may or may not know, I've been rather judicious in my comments in the past. By which I mean to say, I comment infrequently, and when I do I try to be cordial and respectful, usually at the expense of full expression of my ideals. (I can think of a few exceptions to this, of course. Well two, to be exact, aside from today.) I have a tendency in my analytical prose to be extremely cutting for whatever reason. Like even in emails to my friends sometimes. And I realize that. And in an effort to curtail that in an environment that is breeding ground to debate, I have, as a general rule, thought it prudent to monitor my own comments. For example, among other things, I only allow myself one rebuttal to anything anyone says about anything I say. After that, I just let the discussion die. Anyway, for some reason, yesterday, I decided to see what would happen if I just said what I felt without restricting myself. And the results have been veeery interesting. It was cathartic to get everything out I wanted to say, but the expense of doing so might not outweigh the dividends of that catharsis.

Hurricane: You don't need to apologize at all. Not only did I catch you on a bad day, I probably contributed to your bad day. You had every reason to take things personally. While I was saying things I truly believe, it was in reference to the most personal aspects of your current life. If you were an asshole, it's only because I, without a doubt, was egging you on. (Not intentionally, of course, but you see what I mean.) I really, truly appreciate your well wishes in reference to the statistical data against marriages like mine. I am aware of the data, and hope, like you say, to continue forward problem free. And, I genuinely appreciate your support and, contrary to the general sentiment of my blather here, do wish to do whatever I can to help and support you as well.

Dave: I don't mind if you continue the dialogue on your blog, but you certainly don't have to. I realize I kind of threw down the gauntlet here, but this is me picking it back up. I'll have you know that I'm feeling rather done with my battle axe. I'm going to go back and dwell alone in my cave for a while, and I doubt I'll respond to anything you have to say (which undoubtedly will make it easier for even you *gives a wink and a grin* to try to deconstruct my arguments... so go for it). And, honestly, it's apparent that our discussion will get us absolutely nowhere anyway.

In general: the sad aspect about all of this, is that while I said a lot of things I mean, I did so in such a way that, while being rather envigorating for me, is absolutely counterproductive if my goal was in any way to be listened to. Which, sadly, it to some extent was. Nobody wants to listen when they're being attacked, and that's completely understandable. So, this foray into the debate world, while in some ways entertaining for me, has left me feeling pretty bad. Ok, I'll say it: coincidental as it is, I feel guilt. Or remorse. And have in varying levels all day today. Even my wife said to me on the phone on my way home from work "I loved what you had to say and thought you had awesome points, but every time I finished one of your comments I felt gross." So, I guess I'm hoping to practice what I've preached and self-correct. No more huge debates for me. At least for a while. ;-) Sorry to cause a disturbance and then just walk away... but I think it's for the best. Cheers to all.