Medicine for Those Pangs of Guilt

Every day we do things for which we feel little—and sometimes not so little—pangs of guilt. How do we deal with that guilt? Once we have done something we regret and we feel those pangs, how do we get rid of them? There is a brilliant and unexpected answer to this in Lesson 133, “I will not value what is valueless.”

The lesson begins by telling us that every choice we make is really between two fundamental alternatives, and that, depending on which way we go, “each choice you make brings everything to you or nothing” (5:3).

The lesson then offers four “tests by which you can distinguish everything from nothing” (5:4). The first test is this: “If you choose a thing that will not last forever, what you chose is valueless” (6:1). Second, “If you choose to take a thing away from someone else, you will have nothing left” (7:1). Then comes the third test, which will be the focus of this article:

Your next consideration is the one on which the others rest. Why is the choice you make of value to you? What attracts your mind to it? What purpose does it serve? Here it is easiest of all to be deceived. For what the ego wants it fails to recognize. It does not even tell the truth as it perceives it, for it needs to keep the halo which it uses to protect its goals from tarnish and from rust, that you may see how “innocent” it is. (8:1-7)

The third test is about your motives. Why did that choice seem valuable to you? What about it seemed attractive? What purpose were you really trying to serve? Then it says, “Here it is easiest of all to be deceived”—implying, obviously, that we may lie to ourselves about our own motives.

This should not be a surprise, really. How often do you expect to get a straight answer to the question “Why did you do that?” Covering up our motives is part of being human. Indeed, it’s part of being alive. I am always fascinated by those animals that have deception built into their very physical makeup—animals that look harmless but are really deadly, or that look deadly but are really harmless, or that look like plants but are really animals. If you’re alive, chances are that you’re fairly adept at hiding what you’re really up to.

We even hide our motives from ourselves. After all, some part of us is looking on ourselves with the same critical eye with which others look on us. Just as we fear their judgment, so we fear our own self-judgment. And just as we conceal our motives from them, so we hide our real intent from ourselves as well.

What kind of motives are we talking about? We are talking about motives that are not so innocent (note the word “innocent” in quotes in the final sentence). We are talking about motives in which we try to gain at another’s expense. Remember that second test, which is about trying “to take a thing away from someone else.” Yet what do we say when we have motives like this? We say, “I had the best intentions.” “I was only thinking of you.” “I meant well.” “I didn’t mean any harm.” “I did my best.” We all know the lines, for we use them all the time. And we don’t just say them to others; we say them to ourselves as well, to the point where we even think we believe them.

In all of this, our paragraph suggests, our ego is lying to us about its motives. It needs to “keep the halo” (8:7) we see hovering over it. As long as we see that halo, we will not question its counsel. The ego, after all, is a guide. When you are being led by a guide with a halo over his head, you will tend to not question his decisions. The ego knows this. It knows that as long as we see that halo there, we will willingly follow it wherever it leads.

Yet is its camouflage a thin veneer, which could deceive but those who are content to be deceived. Its goals are obvious to anyone who cares to look for them. Here is deception doubled, for the one who is deceived will not perceive that he has merely failed to gain. He will believe that he has served the ego’s hidden goals. (9:1-4)

When you are looking from the outside, it can be so easy to see that the halo is just flimsy camouflage, which would fool only “those who are content to be deceived.” For example, have you ever known someone who naively believed in her boyfriend’s good intentions even though everyone else in her life was telling her to stay away from this guy? His real intentions were there for everyone to see, so why didn’t she see them? We all know the answer: She didn’t want to. She was looking the other way. And that is how we are about our ego’s intentions. We are looking the other way.

Now the paragraph adds a whole new dimension to the discussion. “Here,” it says, “is deception doubled.” What does that mean? We have already discussed the first layer of deception—believing in the goodness of our ego’s motives. In fact, the opening word “here” refers to that first layer (since that’s what was discussed in the preceding sentences). Thus, “Here is deception doubled” means that “here,” in our buying into the first layer, we are actually buying into two layers—our deception is doubled. We are getting a two-for-one deal.

What, then, is the additional layer? It comes in the next sentence: “He will believe that he has served the ego’s hidden goals.” The deception is our belief that we have actually served the ego’s goals. Apparently, we haven’t, but we believe we have. All this will make more sense as we proceed.

Yet though he tries to keep its halo clear within his vision, still must he perceive its tarnished edges and its rusted core. His ineffectual mistakes appear as sins to him, because he looks upon the tarnish as his own; the rust a sign of deep unworthiness within himself. He who would still preserve the ego’s goals and serve them as his own makes no mistakes, according to the dictates of his guide. This guidance teaches it is error to believe that sins are but mistakes, for who would suffer for his sins if this were so? (10:1-4)

Here we have a portrait of the person who is doubly deceived. He fooled himself into thinking his motives were pure, that it was an angel in him that prompted him to act. Yet he has to struggle to keep this “angel’s” halo in sight. While he tries to stay focused on its halo, his eyes keep being pulled elsewhere, to its “tarnished edges and rusted core.” This “angel”—his ego—is not glowing with innocence. It’s not shining like polished silver. It’s tarnished and rusting. It’s a thing of decay, a thing of corruption. It’s rotten to the core.

And while he gazes on that pile of corruption, he thinks he is that pile. After all, he served the ego’s goals “as his own.” He covered for the ego as he would for himself. Therefore, the ego’s voice must not be some foreign agent in him; it must, he decides, be his own true voice. Now he thinks that he is rotten to the core.

Yet in all this, he is deceived. True, the second layer is opposite to the first, and this can make it appear to be a case of humble self-honesty. But the second layer is deception, too. He didn’t sin by acting from impure motives, all he did was make a mistake (10:2). He didn’t really gain at another’s expense, he “merely failed to gain” (9:3). He didn’t cause real harm, real destruction, he just made an “ineffectual” mistake (10:2), one that had no real effect. He didn’t really serve the ego’s goals (9:4), he actually did nothing. Remember what I said at the start: one either chooses everything or nothing. In this case, he chose nothing.

And so we come to the criterion for choice that is the hardest to believe, because its obviousness is overlaid with many levels of obscurity. If you feel any guilt about your choice, you have allowed the ego’s goals to come between the real alternatives. And thus you do not realize there are but two, and the alternative you think you chose seems fearful, and too dangerous to be the nothingness it actually is. (11:1-3)

This paragraph lists the fourth and final test: Do you feel any guilt about your choice? If so, that is the sign that you’ve bought into the second layer of deception. You may protest your innocence. You may say that you had everyone’s interests at heart. Yet you still feel those lingering pangs of guilt. They are the proof that underneath your claims of innocence you believe that you sinned in order to gratify your ego. In truth, the “real alternatives” are only two: nothing and everything. But you believe you chose a third—a guilty pleasure, a dangerous delight, a wicked triumph. You believe you served your dark master and furthered his dark goals. And your guilt is the emotional proof of this hidden belief.

We now have all the raw material with which to assemble the whole picture. I’ll do it in the form of a table:

Deception #1: My motives were pure. Truth #1: I tried to gain at their expense.
Deception #2: I sold my soul to the devil. I’m rotten to the core. Truth #2: I did not sin. I merely failed to gain.

Let’s start with the left-hand column. Ironically, we choose deception #1 in order to feel innocent, yet it’s a package deal—by choosing deception #1 we automatically get deception #2. And this makes sense, does it not? Deception #1 is a cover over #2, and we only cover up what we believe is real. As the Course says, “Denial depends on the belief in what is denied for its own existence” (T-12.I.9:6). Thus, as we throw up those smokescreens that conceal our guilt and make us look innocent, something in our mind says, “You must really have something to hide. The lady doth protest too much indeed!”

Deceptions #1 and #2, then, are really two parts of a single system. In this system, deception #2 is what we believe deep down, and deception #1 is our attempt to deny that belief and escape its pain. The more we believe #2, the more impelled we are to deny it with #1. And the more we deny it, the more we demonstrate that we really do believe it. The two deceptions may look opposite, but they are two halves of a single symbiotic system. The more we embrace one, the more we feed the other. As a result, the people who protest their innocence the most vocally are the ones who believe in their guilt the most deeply.

I hope you can see that we can’t escape our guilt through deception #1. It’s what we all try to do. It’s where we all go as soon as the you-know-what hits the fan. Everyone, from politicians to spiritual seekers to spiritual masters, says, “I only had the best intentions.” But it doesn’t work. How, then, do we escape our guilt? We need to head in the exact opposite direction from where we are tempted to head. We need to reverse our deceptions, starting with the top layer. That means admitting, first of all, that we had impure motives. To put this even more directly, we need to admit that we wanted to gain at someone else’s expense. I realize this is very hard, but to undo the bottom layer, we need to peel off the top layer first.

Let’s do this with an actual situation in our lives. Think of a situation about which you feel some guilt, some regret over what you did or how you handled it. Then say to yourself:

I was trying to gain at [name’s] expense.

Say this to yourself a few times, until it really sinks in.

Saying this can feel just awful. It will probably leave you face to face with the belief that you have sinned, that you are the ego, that you are rotten to the core. It may, in other words, land you right where you didn’t want to be, in the jaws of deception #2. Yet here is where you have the chance to undo that deception. You can’t undo it until you expose it. As long as you deny it with deception #1, then to your conscious eyes there is nothing to undo. Now, however, you can see your belief in guilt, which was there all along. You can see the sickness, and so you have a chance to apply the remedy. So quietly affirm to yourself:

But I did not sin.
I merely failed to gain.

Again, repeat this to yourself until it really sinks in. Try to feel the liberation in these statements. All you did was make an ineffectual mistake. You sought to gain, but you failed to gain. You reached for something, but you found nothing. Let what you chose be the nothingness it really was, and let that nothingness free you from guilt. Try not to let yourself feel guilty for missing an opportunity, for such opportunities will return continually. It is the nature of time to constantly provide us with fresh chances to choose again. Try also to feel the humility in these statements. You thought you did real damage, yet that is part of the conceit of the ego. In your Father’s creation, you don’t have the power to do any actual damage. You were just a child playing a game. Only in the imagination of the children playing did anyone get hurt. In reality, their Father was watching over everyone involved, keeping them all safe in truth. Perhaps you think you won at this game, but that too was only in your imagination. In reality, nothing happened—you harmed no one and won nothing.

This is a much more effective medicine for our pangs of guilt than denying that we had any hurtful intent. Such denials ring hollow, even as they escape our lips. How refreshing it would be if we could just own up to the dark side of our intentions. And how liberating it would be if we could look our guilt straight in the face, and calmly negate the truth of it. We didn’t do the terrible thing we thought we did. We did nothing at all. We merely failed to gain.

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]