Further Notes on Nature-Guilt
by Eric Rosenbloom
Click here for original essay “Nature-Guilt”
We carry inside us a persistent guilt. We are aware that the fulfillment of our needs is made at the expense of other animals and our environment. Religion serves primarily to relieve that guilt, either by expiating it via sacrifice and prayer or by separating our lives from the other lives around us. Other means follow the example of religion: nationalism, professional identity, marketing.
Religion, along with its imitators, raises a proxy of our intrinsic guilt, some quotidian anxiety, for which it offers relief. Like junk food carefully designed to not quite satisfy, we must keep returning for more in this endless distraction from the real issue. The interest is indeed to not truly satisfy, to keep the circle feeding on itself: more material reward, more guilt, more means of relieving its stand-ins, more material reward . . . Our desires are now called needs.
Christianity’s perfection of religion is the promise that you can have your cake and eat it, too: The necessary sacrifice has been made for all humanity for all eternity, and we are thereby liberated. Of course, nothing has actually changed, and Christianity’s absolution serves to enable greater crimes, and thus greater guilt, and thus greater devotion to the church and greater opportunities for political and consumerist demagoguery. From the premise that our guilt has been washed away, only more defiant denial of its persistence is possible.
When our continuing crimes are acknowledged, they are blamed on others: We can not be perfectly free (from our guilt) until those others are expunged from us. They are marked as outsiders, threats, traitors. With increasing mistrust, people choose up sides as in a sporting contest and blame each other for the discomfort they still sense in themselves.
The denial of our guilt from knowing the consequences of our life, namely, that it takes from other life, ultimately requires seeing nature itself as our enemy. Nature is made to pay ever more as proof of our freedom (from guilt). This, too, is a vicious cycle, as greater depredations require ever more strenuous denial of guilt by greater depredation (even while denying it as such, by insisting it is to nature’s benefit, remedy for the other team’s depredations) . . .
This pattern, which dominates our relationship to ourselves and to our world, is the model for all challenges to our worldviews and lifestyles: the discomfort of the other team’s evidence that your truth is not absolute, and the response to try harder to make it so — reward eludes you until you eliminate all that denies to you its comforts. Something else we must deny is the example of history, which shows us that every effort to purge our lives of its nonconforming elements only makes things worse, increasing the need for the agents of distraction and flattery — religion and its imitators.
To stand against this is lonely indeed. Your effort to resolve your guilt yourself, to come to terms with it, to separate needs from desires and live in a way that does not exacerbate the reasons for your guilt — it is not looked upon generously by the social and economic machine that depends on your looking instead to its established systems for relief. You are an enemy. You are selfish, you think you’re better than everyone else. That selfishness, that egocentrism, that pride, however, is a problem of definition.
Pride is indeed self-satisfaction, the pleasure of reshaping desires, urges, even needs, to fit the demands of reality and the outside world. But there are two kinds of pride. One is infantile, the other is what we should expect, but rarely see, from adults. Infantile pride is in pleasing external authority, even when internalized to the extent that it seems of one’s self. The adult learns to separate his or her self from that authority and to replace it with his or her own means of balance and relief. The pride of pleasing one’s self as thus created is the pride that is condemned by those whose pride remains infantile. It is, however, a pride that is justified. In contrast, infantile pride serves the external authority; it is about replacing the self, the pride of sacrificing one’s self to the atoning power. Those whose pride is infantile hate the naysayers, hate those who take on the ambivalences of life in themselves and disdain the treadwheel and pabulum of institutionalized comfort and distraction. The infantiles’ heros are those who follow orders most ardently. The adults’ heros are those who think for themselves, expect others to think for themselves, and communicate in terms of reality rather than self-serving dreams.
The infantiles reverse not only reality and dream but also maturity and infancy. They believe it is their “adult” sacrifice, their submission to the “real world” of their psychological miasma, that makes it possible for the “naive” and “immature” to disdain them. Their pride tells them that they have grown to control their desires, but they have only transferred (or delivered) them to a higher authority.