As I write this, it has been 12-years since I obtained my PhD in clinical psychology. In many ways, I feel quite proud of what I have accomplished; in other ways I struggle with the existential guilt associated with the privilege that allowed for that success. I write this as I near the end of my term as president of the Society for Humanistic Psychology. The focus of my presidency was on diversity. Yet, this piece was inspired in part by an email I received recently that confronted me on my own mistake when, in a recent article I wrote, I easily focused on the accomplishments and status of two White males instead of choosing to be more inclusive in the people I identified. I am very appreciative of that feedback. Even though diversity is one of the primary passions of my career, I am regularly humbled by my mistakes and how much I have yet to learn.
Existential guilt can be thought of as referring to when one lives inauthentically, or fails to seek out achieving our potential. However, it can also be understood as something connecting deeply to our human nature (i.e., something ontological) or who we are as a person. Tillich (1957) distinguishes between a more particular guilt, for example, and the guilt we have not by our particular acts, but by our participation in a system:
The citizens of a city are not guilty of the crimes committed in their city; but they are guilty as participants in the destiny of [humanity] as a whole and in the destiny of their city in particular…. They are guilty, not of committing the crimes of which their group is accused, but of contributing to the destiny in which these crimes happened. (p. 58)
May (1961), however, cautions that we should not be too judgmental about deserving this guilt:
…because of this interplay of conscious and unconscious factors in guilt and the impossibility of legalistic blame, we are forced into an attitude of acceptance of the universal human situation and a recognition of the participation of every one of us in man’s [sic] inhumanity to man [sic]. (p. 50).
Existential Guilt and Responsibility
The notion of ambiguity must not be confused with that of absurdity. To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won. Absurdity challenges every ethics; but also the finished rationalization of the real would leave no room for ethics; it is because man’s [sic] condition is ambiguous that he [sic] seeks, through failure and outrageousness, to save his [sic] existence. (de Beauvior, 1948, p. 129)
If, as Tillich points out, we cannot escape being existentially guilty and, as May points out, we should not be too harsh on ourselves about this, where does this leave us? It seems the easiest choice would be to become cynical, apathetic, or both. Yet, from an existential perspective, this is seen as a call to live more responsibility in the face of our guilt. Existential thinkers are often creating meaning out of paradox, and it is often from the tension of these seeming contradictions that the deepest forms of meaning emerge.
Tom Greening addresses this beautifully:
I finally went to a concentration camp for the first time in my life last August… I wanted to do that, and am glad I did. It was a very powerful experience. It sort of felt like paying one’s existential dues… if you are going to be alive in the 20th or 21st century, that you are going to claim to be alive and had lived in that time, then what should you be aware of, or in touch with?… There are a whole bunch of existential facts that one ought to really… embrace, or acknowledge, even feel existential guilt about. (as cited in Claypool, 2010, p. 110)
Our guilt is not our final condemnation, but rather it is what frees us to respond authentically and responsibly to the inevitability of failure in our limited, finite state. When we can begin to understand this redemptive purpose of guilt, it is no longer experienced as a burden, but rather a positive element of responsibility.
Existential Responsibility and Privilege
My life has been one of privilege, and for this, I gladly experience existential guilt. Guilt can be a healthier alternative to the other possibilities of shame or fear. Many people of privilege, when recognizing how their privilege has benefitted them and harmed others, feel a sense a shame. This can be a normal and even healthy phase in one’s cultural identity development. However, if stuck in shame, it can often lead to defensiveness or an inability to response. Similarly, many people of privilege live in fear of being identified as a “racist” or “sexist.” As Granger (2013) point out, fear is often the root of many forms of racism, particularly microaggressions.
Guilt has a greater potential to be redemptive in the context of privilege. Guilt, however, is also inclusive of some of the fear: fear of being identified as a racist, fear of losing one’s privilege, fear of losing one’s power. Yet, if guilt is embraced it serves as a motivator to help us respond to our privilege in a responsible way.
What we experience as an essential quality of authenticity is humility, of allowing ourselves to not know and be humbled by the not knowing for others and ourselves. (Heery, 2009)
I could never identify, let alone reject, all of my privilege. Privilege is such a thing that we have it, often even when we do not recognize it. If we can face directly (i.e., zhi mian) our privilege, then we are empowered to use our existential guilt in a way to counteract our privilege. Thus, our calling is to reduce and eliminate privilege where we can and, when we cannot, to use it honestly, responsibly, and authentically.
Claypool, T. (2010). On becoming an existential psychologist: Journeys of contemporary leaders. ProQuest, UMI Dissertation Publishing (3412340).
deBeauvior, S. (1948). The ethics of ambiguity (B. Frechtmsn, Trans.). New York, NY: Citadel Press.
Granger, N. , Jr., (2013, February 21). The future of existential psychology: Fear the boogie man, not the negro. Retrieved from https://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/02-21-13.
Heery, M. (2009). Global authenticity. In L. Hoffman, M. Yang, F. J. Kaklauskas, & A. Chan (Eds.), Existential psychology east-west (pp. 205-219). Colorado Springs, CO: University of the Rockies Press.
May, R. (1961). The meaning of the Oedipus myth. Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, 1, 44-52.
Tillich, P. (1957). Systematic theology (Vol. 2). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
— Louis Hoffman