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Ask Dr. Salvo

July 11, 1995

Ask Dr. Salvo

Dear Doctor Salvo,

Isn't it about time for you to serious-up and put something of enduring value in your column? I get the impression that you tire too easily and will gladly pause by the roadside to bandy words with any thimble-head who catches your attention. Perhaps if we, your public, would write more and better letters, the response might be more endurable? "Garbage in, garbage out" is one of the rare truths the computer generation have passed on to us.

For instance, what about some thoughts on guilt -- the gift you give to your loved ones, that lasts a life-time, the gift that shows you care, the gift that comes free from our parents and can float down the generations. (This is a quote from Prairie Home Companion and therefore serious stuff.)

Hopeful Fan

Dear Hopeful Fan,

Keeping in mind that "fan" is the abbreviation for fanatic, I will nevertheless try to inject a more scholarly ambience if not essence, into these worldly pages. As the Kangaroo said to the Duck: "There seems but one objection, which is if you'll parm me speakin as bold, your feet are unpleasantly wet and cold--liable to give me the Roo-matiz" said the Kangaroo. They worked it out and so will we.


P.S. I will begin at the beginning and progress through the middle to the end, as Alice recommended. Thus, we'll commence with a light scholarly gloss on Biblical Guilt: Brazilian Analysis.

Title: Biblical Guilt in 12 Easy Steps


Adam and Eve and the Serpent. God and the Garden. A tree. An Apple.


1. The agent of guilt is always lurking in our Garden. Mustn't overlook the opportunity he offers.


2. He is Satan the wily and streetwise serpent. He offers what? Why, whatever God forbids! Serpent:

3. First he tempts the Woman. "Try this, you'll like it!" What housewife shopping for a change of groceries could resist it? She tries it.

4. Eve likes it. She then offers it to Adam: "Try it, you'll like it!" (Finding an accomplice -- sharing the guilt.)

5. Adams tries it. He likes it too. (Little does he know.)

6. Just then Adam notices Eve is naked. Mmmm Unh! Funny he hadn't noticed it before.

7. Eve notices Adam is naked. "This is fun!" as Martha said to George years later.

8. Just as they begin to enjoy flashing and peeping, God looks in and catches them contemplating the Act. He waxes wroth, as he often did in those days. Being omniscient and so, prescient, he knows what they have in mind. Besides, he invented the procedure.

9. He asks some pointed questions, then pins the blame on Adam. Ignores Eve altogether. She was not in on his original bargain with Adam, he tells himself. The engaging innocence of God clearly appears here, as in his bet with the Devil about Job. 10. Adam points at Eve. Eve points at the Serpent. He gives an oily smile and shrugs his shoulders. This is difficult, as he has none, but he manages.

Part 10, shifting the blame, is a vital and necessary part of guilt. A virtuosity to which statesmen aspire.

11. Like any irate parent, faced with the shifty defenses of erring children, God punishes all three. "Guilt is a moving target at best." This principle was refined much later by the R.C. Church in its dictum about the Huguenots: "Kill them all. God will take care of His own."

12. Adam must work and sweat for his bread -- the picnic is over. Also, he and Eve must leave. Eve must labor and bring forth children in travail and sorrows. AND: Shop, cook, clean up, do the laundry (all of this was in the fine print). The Serpent must crawl in the dust in his belly, and be bruised by Adam's heel off and on. However, he may bite back occasionally, and wound Adam's heel. Note that Eve's penalties are the worst, showing that God was not fooled by the farce.


We decide not to fool with Achilles and his bruised heel. He was only a pugnacious pagan and we haven't the time.

However we can't neglect the guilt of Oedipus (old Bigfoot) who was still mouthing-off after he had murdered his father, taken his throne, married his mother and had both eyes put out. "They started it" he said. For some reason he still resents being exposed to die, on a hill, and he an infant and all.

Compared to the profound stoic wisdom of Oedipus, the soliloquies of Hamlet sound more like dithering. However and needles to say is done on purpose the two biographies were similar enough to allow Freud to draw a bunch of erroneous conclusions about all of us, and to instigate psychoanalysis -- as the first medical industry in North American.

It is of some trivial interest that both Biblical guilt and Pagan guilt agree in having God write the script, predict all the miseries and catastrophies, blame the actors, and punish the latter with death or worse. All for playing their preordained parts.

One can only imagine the actors down at the Actors' Equity Building when the parts are handed out. Looking like young lawyers who have just decided, on the Judge's advice, to defend some atrocious felon "pro bono publico."

Leaving those poor pagans and apple grabbers behind, we turn to guilt in modern times: Recently I read in a novel of the Canadian Robertson Davis, the account of a suicide by a quite successful young composer and teacher. His mistress, who had recently rejected him, was convinced of her guilt. A few weeks later, in a gathering of the late composer's friends and colleagues, she discovered one after another equally convinced of his own responsibility for the distinguished suicide. At this point we should pause and recall how even small children characteristically blame themselves for the disasters of their parents, be it suicide, death by any cause, divorce, or madness. Parents, who might be expected to know better, often do the same in regard to the disasters or deaths of their children. "Where did I fail?" Could all this freely accepted yet punishing guilt serve some purpose in the spiritual economy of the guilt-ridden survivor?

There are several possibilities: If one be responsible for another's suicide, then it follows that one's love for that person was of tremendous importance to him and that some withdrawal of that love was sufficient to bring on despair, hence suicide. The survivor, therefore, can feel his own extraordinary importance to one person, in a world otherwise indifferent to his unusual worth. Indeed, it would appear that he had, all unknowing, held the power of life and death in his hands. Far from being an unimportant, powerless, even helpless witness to another's destruction, the survivor's responsibility assures him that, had he done this or said that, the suicide would have lived. There had, perhaps, been some hope for the suicide to choose life, had the survivor only used his power wisely or more lovingly. It is, somehow, flattering to one's self esteem.

Such inward transactions are difficult to detect in oneself, much less in another human. Still, if we grant our tendency to avoid pain and seek pleasure - - or at least security -- then it is tempting to conclude that most of us would prefer to feel guilty, but also responsible, important, and powerful. Instead, to feel innocent, and also unimportant and helpless leads to a state more to be feared than guilt: Shame.

Some interesting papers have been written on depression due to guilt vs. depression due to shame. The latter seems to be less known, or at least little discussed. Still there are some familiar examples. In Japan for centuries suicide was the honorable way out of unbearable shame. This miserable state could arise from military defeat, dishonor to the family, or even a business failure. In the Deep South (communications by Dr. Pam Mussell, USAMC), suicide by men is commonly by gunshot wound to the head. It usually follows a loss of status, money, or control, i.e. events likely to produce feelings of shame (viz - 1929 suicides). Curiously, about half of the time, the act is committed in the presence of a witness. One could expect shame rather to move the sufferer to concealment, a private quietus. So much for theory. Of course the suicide could be saying "Look at me -- I fear no death -- I take it on."

However, when shame is compared with guilt some hints at an explanation may emerge: Guilt, the outcome of wrong-doing, of some excess, of lustful behavior, tends to paralyze its victim. It does not stimulate to more action upon the world. Recall Hamlet's paralysis.

Shame, by contrast, is the result of one's shortcomings, one's failure to do, or act, in a worthy manner. Shame can be a spur to further action on the stage of the world, to show, to prove that one is not little, weak, and insignificant (vis - Gandhi and the first class ticket). "I'll show you!" seems to be the spirit of shame-inspired suicides.

Guilt over another's suicide is a relatively uncommon experience, but feeling guilty over one's transgressions, great or small, is the stuff of everyone's daily life. What then is the point of feeling guilty, in view of the strong possibility that we'd all be more comfortable and have more fun without it? Could guilt serve some necessary purpose in human society? It is certainly a strongly social emotion. To those who seem to feel no guilt over their crimes or mistreatment of others, we apply the epithet "antisocial personality." (This is a normative expression now being used as a psychiatric diagnosis.)

Four or five decades ago, with the help of anthropologists' writings about cultures with different values from our own, the idea of moral relativity became popular. What is wrong in New York may be right in New Guinea, and so on. Some people misread the news and thought that morals that were time- and culture- bound were no morals at all, and therefore of the noble savage, or natural man, dear to the 19th century social theorists.

It is possible that enlightenment about morals did lead to some loosening of taboos, especially among the young. As the young grew older, however, they discovered that wrongdoing according to mores still was wrong, felt wrong, and often led to punishment by society as well as personal guilt. These facts persisted regardless of what went on in New Guinea.

More, anon --

-- July 11, 1995

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