“The Pain of Phantom Guilt”. by Henry Regehr
David and I met at Tim Horton’s where we had our regular coffee and every morning we compared notes about our activities and interests. He was a photographer by hobby and truck driver by profession. He had a lively sense of humor and a pleasant smile that spread easily over his bearded face. The conversation, on this particular Monday, now a long time ago, had been friendly and casual until he said, “I was saved at a Billy Graham Crusade meeting. Ever since then I have been plagued by feelings of guilt”. That got my full attention on that rainy day and we ordered another cup of coffee.
“That is not how it was supposed to work”, he said. I knew David as a thoughtful person. He questioned, explored ideas, but he was shaken that his religious experience had the opposite effect to what he had expected. He now was preoccupied with the minutia of sins his “conscience” told him he committed from day to day. He was in great destress.
Conscience, he had been told, was God’s voice, and he had honestly believed. He discovered now that this could not be right, given the anxiety he was experiencing, the sleepless nights, the painful phantom guilt.
I went into lecture mode for a minute, slipping into Psychology 201. Some feelings of guilt, I said, are clearly appropriate. An elderly man I once met, I told him, had, in a fit of rage murdered his girlfriend. He insisted that he would feel guilty for the rest of his life, even though he had served his full sentence in federal prison and was now out on parole. That would seem fitting. Breaking the fundamental rules of human decency, like acts of violence, flagrant illegal behaviour, sexual perversion, abusive behaviour, or deliberate deception would suitably elicit feelings of guilt. If that sort of action would not stir feelings of guilt any observer would, quite logically, consider the person sociopathic.
For David, haunting feelings of guilt that came from breaking his family’s cultural rules would be considered appropriate by his family or its community. His minister, he explained, had many years ago, and in all sincerity, drawn up a list of activities that should be considered sins. The list included birth control, bowling, attending movies and dancing. It took up a whole page. Clearly, the purpose was to induce guilt in the youth of the congregation for certain behaviours in order to keep them from becoming “worldly”, another term for acculturating. For David, the technique worked extremely well. Use of guilt as a means of control is a temporary device, we both agreed, but not effective in the long term, and damaging in both the short and long term. When the congregation saw the list, he said, they were suitably shocked. They had expected the minister to be more enlightened, more with it, but they still held to rigid cultural rules of compliance in many other things.
My Abnormal Psychology 301 had taught me, and he could agree, that the guilt which is part of a mood disorder or an episode of depression is another kettle of fish entirely and required psychotherapeutic and medical intervention. His mother, he said, lived with a persistent depression and the terrible guilt that came along with that illness. Under no circumstances could those overwhelming feelings be seen in religious terms. In her community, he said, it was believed to be a spiritual condition, treated with prayer and confession. It had not been effective.
I lost touch with David when we both took different directions. I moved to a different city with my family, had a new assignment and enjoyed walking on the waterfront. It was now at least fifteen years later, and I was shocked to recognize a very changed David in a wheelchair. He was living in a bus
shelter. In short, he had been in a trucking accident and lost both of his feet and now moved about in an electric wheelchair. All he owned was somehow attached to his vehicle that looked like an overloaded truck.
He continued to smile easily and could laugh at his strained circumstances. We met often since my regular walks took me past his glass home on the path. He was doing a lot of writing, he said, and showed me the notebooks full of his scribblings. I brought him a package of pens and more notebooks since he was running short but refused to take any money. It was clear that he was not addicted to drugs or alcohol. It was also obvious that he had made many friends over the time he lived outside, homeless. Over time I noticed that his wheelchair was frequently breaking down and he told me of the difficulty he was having getting the welfare people to arrange for repairs. One day I was surprized to see that he had a new wheelchair. One of his passing friends had ordered the expensive chair for him. He did not know the donor’s last name, but he was immensely grateful.
The police visited him often on complaints from other passers-by who were not friendly, but the officers were sympathetic. City officials had him evicted on one occasion and he disappeared for a time. After several months he was back at his station, welcoming conversations with his many friends.
The nagging phantom guilt feelings had disappeared he reported, now replaced with phantom pain in his absent feet. We had a quiet chuckle.
Last winter was blistering cold. David had lived outside through several of those cold seasons, but this was much worse than most. One of his friends found him wrapped in his blankets and parka, unresponsive.
A memorial service was held, friends shared their stories, plastic flowers were placed in the glass shelter.
David’s phantom pains were over.