Guilt is an ugly thing. We all know it. And we all try to avoid it at any price. But guilt is necessary to personal growth and leadership. We need to stop hiding from it and start accepting it. Our progress and unlimited learning have taken its toll on our planet. It’s time to face our guilt in order to transform it. Two stories this week made me choose guilt as my topic for today: The first was published on the daily mail in UK, and retweeted to me yesterday (dailymail.co.uk). A baby elephant was refusing to abandon the dead body of its mother, braving the cold and darkness of the night.
Fortunately it was rescued by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and welcomed into an elephant orphanage to find a new future. Still, looking at the amazingly humane posture of the animal, hugging its mother’s body with its trunk, I asked myself how many orphans, human and animal, have stood guard by a dead parent in human history. More importantly, how many paid such a high price for a reason other than life itself: pillage, conquest, enrichment of someone, glory of others?… the many questionable excuses we’ve used to kill for thousands of years.
One of my clients provided the second story. A rather successful entrepreneur, he’s become mortally demotivated in the past few months. A few discussions into the origins of his fatigue with what used to be very exciting business adventures led him to identify an acute and overwhelming feeling of guilt. Once he stopped forcing himself to work, allowing himself some time to rest and connect back into his body, he was able to put a name on this feeling which had always been there in his background. Like a noise that’s annoying you, but you don’t really notice until it stops. Rather coincidentally, a picture of a great grandfather became quite present in his mind. This distant relative had left Spain at fourteen to go find fortune in Mexico in the nineteenth century.
Having become a very wealthy man, he suddenly left everything to come back to Spain in his forties. The old, black and white picture haunting my client depicted his fortune-seeker ancestor standing with one foot on top of a dead man’s head. An indigenous man. While it may be easy to judge this scene from the safety and comfort of our twenty-first century lives in modern cities, it would be very unfair to do so without understanding the circumstances that drove my client’s relative to kill one or many men back then, back there.
My client is now in the process of accepting that what his great grandfather did must have had a profound impact later in life. The guilt of taking another person’s life for reasons other than survival may have pushed him to move back to Spain as an escape, or an effort to forget. [pullquote]The problem is, even if we do manage to forget on a conscious level, our bodies hold on to the feelings we have not expressed.[/pullquote] The problem is, even if we do manage to forget on a conscious level, our bodies hold on to the feelings we have not expressed. As we fool ourselves into “turning the page”, “moving on”, and hoping for a better future, our bodies obediently bury our emotions deep underneath, in that dark pool we call the unconscious.
What is buried rather than resolved, however, can come back to haunt us many decades later. And because our bodies are mammals who share feelings and emotions spontaneously before our conscious minds even get a whiff of what’s taking place, we can’t help but share such buried burdens with those who most love us and cherish us. Thus, younger generations can find themselves carrying an unspeakable level of guilt in what psychiatrist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy named “invisible loyalty”.
There are many lines of thinking in family therapy developing this concept, but I’ll keep it very simple and intuitive. Unsolved wounds and affronts suffered in one generation are unconsciously passed on to the next generations to work on. Just as a baby elephant is ready to sacrifice his own wellbeing in the hopes of somehow reliving his dead mother, many human babies take on huge emotional loads from their parents in a loving effort to free them of the weight. It is pure mammal solidarity.
We see examples of it every day in Nature. Though we try not to see how it also drives us to make choices in life which ultimately sacrifice our own happiness in the hopes of somehow restoring our long lost parents’ and grandparents’ joy. As we get older we find ourselves repeating dumb patterns of failure, or exclusion, self-sabotage or self-imposed loneliness. All of which directly impact our companies as much as they impact our personal lives.
We also fool ourselves into thinking we won’t do it again. And so we set ourselves up for blind repetition by applying all our efforts to look away, forget, deny…making us leaders of trash. Resolving our patterns, however, is as simple as looking at them. My client has already noticed an improvement in his motivation because he has started to look at himself and accept the feelings of guilt that haunt him. He has begun to look into his family’s history to discover the patterns repeating down through generations, also spilling into his own life. As he continues to connect the dots of his own life choices with the decisions made by his ancestors, he slowly resolves the buried burdens his elders have unknowingly put away for later.
It would be difficult to find a family free of guilt in our current society. We’ve mixed and mingled so much by now that we’re all related to someone who killed, exploited or enslaved others for profit. Guilt is invisibly present in all those selfies going up on internet around the world. Whether we care to look for it or try to ignore it in the many millions of colored pixels we produce. Avoiding our inherited guilt pushes us to repeat patterns of abuse that trash our planet mercilessly.
But if we each stop a moment to do something other than take a selfie snapshot, we may become aware of the share of guilt we carry. We may connect it to what we know about our family. Finally, we may resolve it for once and for all. The guilty are stronger than the innocent because they know what it feels like to hurt another. The innocent may yet do many dumb things in life. The guilty will not. The guilty will try to do something to honor those they hurt in their blind innocence.
They will, in fact, live to honor their victims with love and proud commitment every day. This is how guilt transforms into love. Don’t forget. Don’t move on. Don’t look away. Find the patterns you are repeating and connect the dots of guilt in your past. Stay with your guilt. You will find yourself building truly wonderful business models in the future. Business models of inspired love for Nature and grateful respect for life in all its forms.
If every leader transforms his guilt into loving respect of life, we will finally give meaning and purpose to all those who died in the name of profit. Profit will at last be at the service of life.