Opinion: Why Guilt Can Be Good

Imagine yourself propelling through the quad one early morning on the way to your nine am. Glancing down at your phone, the digitalized screen reads “9:01” and the Gasson bells begin to sing their perpetually late chant. Eyes focused forward, you can’t help but notice a scene unfolding up ahead. A girl hustles by, and out of her pocket falls her golden ticket to all things BC, her Eagle ID. Before you can find your own voice, a hero in the form of a Patagonia-clad boy jumps into action, picks it up, and flags her down. The transaction is unceremonious, yet you are a bit disgusted with yourself for letting this simple act make your heart fill with warmth.

People are constantly rushing to the aid of those around them, from simple gestures of picking up a fallen item to grander ones, such as the missions pursued by nonprofit organizations and service groups. In a time when the world seems to want to slip into darkness, I cherish these occurrences, big and small. Yet, invisible to my eyes is the motivation behind these good deeds. According to a new study conducted at Harvard, actions carried out to benefit others are often induced by feelings of guilt. Logic tells us that a good deed brought about by selfish means is a tainted one. However, the flawed world we live in leads me to believe that there is always more room for kindness in the world, regardless of guilty motivations.

Exploring the egotistical backdrop to the sincere actions we witness around us is not always easy to do. For all you know, the boy who brightened your day by saving another Eagle ID from being lost could have been motivated by a bout of lingering guilt. Acting out of remorse in this way makes the core of the action one of self-fulfillment. Human nature leads us to desire security in our status as a relatively good person, so when guilt rears its head we leap into action. Especially at BC, learning about the lack of education that most of the world faces could cause you to feel guilty about the card you’ve been dealt. In an effort to absolve yourself, you might gift a charitable donation or volunteer at local Boston public schools.

Ideally we would all be eager to spread the love and help out one another with selfless intentions. In a fantasy land we would want nothing more than to see a smile appear on the faces of those we’ve aided. Snapping us out of this dream sequence is the cold reality of human nature. Innately—and therefore unconsciously—humans are selfish beings. We act to increase our own comfort and further our own ends.

A silver lining presents itself when we consider that while some of these beautiful displays of human kindness are really an ice pack soothing a bruised ego, the outcome is beneficial nonetheless. When all is said and done, both parties are able to walk away smiling. Unless you perform your niceties with a furrowed brow and have a ‘get-me-out-of-here’ tone in your voice, chances are those receiving your charity aren’t aware of your internal motivation. They are relishing the perks of your action, genuine or not.

In addition, although a dime a dozen, there are people out there do good deeds just because. The boy you saw display such random kindness could very well have enjoyed the feeling that, in even the tiniest way possible, he made someone’s burden a little lighter. Doing the right thing isn’t taxing for these folks; it’s the rational choice. Those who live to serve reap rewards from the simple act of helping another person. A smile, laugh, and “thank you” fill their hearts, not with reassurance that they aren’t terrible people, but with genuine ease.

The phrase “in a perfect world” is exhausting to consider because human nature is so far from perfect. There is no scenario where everyone can simultaneously or consistently act selflessly, without guilt or another motivation pushing them to do so. However, just because the means behind a good deed are a bit blurred, doesn't mean the ends are unjustified. Regardless of motivation—be it sincerity, guilt, or even force—we need as much kindness as we can get. In this imperfect world, lifting a burden off someone else’s shoulders in an effort to lighten your load is just enough to justify those means.

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Frankie Magner