Should you brood?

In hatred as in love, we grow like the thing we brood upon.
What we loathe, we graft into our very soul
Mary Renault, novelist (4 Sep 1905-1983)

Anyone brought up in the religions of the 1930s and 1940s knows a lot about guilt. It was the weapon of control, certainly of the church I attended. We were told we were born guilty, in need of forgiveness. So bad were we that we should devote our entire lives to trying to expunge the guilt. There was no moment when we might forget that we had a deep stain on our character. That stain was enough to condemn us to hell for eternity – a difficult concept for a six year old.

Fast forward eighty years and anxiety is still a profound part of the makeup of many who grew up with guilt. The arrogance of thinking that somehow we can be responsible for the world softens the blow intellectually, but emotional guilt will probably never go away. If it’s going to, perhaps it could hurry up. We don’t want ‘forgiveness’, we want ‘forgetness’. I guess that will come soon enough.

So bad were the strictures of guilt that we learnt to attribute it to someone else, even if we were actually guilty. It bred a blame culture. Everything that went wrong had to be someone’s fault. There were no such things as accidents. And so we learnt to pass the parcel of ‘proof’, even though there often was none, until a culprit could be identified, condemned, punished.

In business terms ridding a company of this heinous behaviour meant taking extreme measures. Since the belief was irrational it was only right that the remedy should be, too. I found myself rewarding genuine commercial errors with a glass of champagne all round at ten in the morning and literally praising the ‘guilty’ for having discovered a trap before the rest of us fell into it. If it sounds absurd, let me assure you that it was far from. Victims of accidents redoubled their efforts to avoid pitfalls. Those unlucky enough to be victims rejoiced that they could save others.

A community was built to spread the damage, not torn apart so that a scapegoat could be found. Good people helped the less gifted instead of shunning them into disgrace. There is no perfect world but one in which you behave kindly isn’t all that bad. Guilt doesn’t lead to kindness, it leads to fear, to terror, to, well, more guilt. It also leads to brooding, a navel-gazing exercise in which we believe that studying our weaknesses will somehow mitigate them and bring forgiveness.

As Mary Renault said, the reverse happens. The loathing we have for the subject of our brooding turns inwards. It becomes a witch hunt of ourselves. Punishment seldom works but the threat of it does – in quite the wrong way. Our risk-averseness is already ingrained. Dreaded punishment makes it worse. We become so cautious that we don’t want to be thought of even contemplating something new. ‘A safe pair of hands’ becomes our hoped-for target, instead of condemnation.

Humans generally have an awareness of their weaknesses. What the ‘guilt code’ doesn’t implant, the wicked boss will. How often has the annual appraisal been benign only to turn out a few weeks later to be the kiss of death? Whether the resultant anti-appraisal has anything to do with the truth is problematic. What is certain is that it will distract from the real issue which is not what are our weaknesses but what are our strengths. If, instead of being reminded how wicked we all are, we can be told about the personal assets in our lives we will become much more fulfilled.

So turn the faults into benefits, brood about the good not the bad, rejoice at learning. Those who brood on being good become good.

Brood to lift up your spirit.

It will make you a brave person.

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