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Ash Wednesday Idea: Beat Guilt This Lent -- Literally

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In an age when boosting self-esteem is seen as the answer to every problem, the idea of physically punishing oneself to expiate guilt is a notion that borders on the medieval.

But just in time for Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season of penance, new research shows that some form of "mortification of the flesh" -- the old-fashioned term for inflicting physical discomfort for spiritual growth -- can in fact alleviate feelings of guilt.

The old Christian ascetics knew it, and now social scientists have some proof that it's true -- and some explanation as to why that's so.

"One reason may be that the experience of physical pain alleviates feelings of guilt associated with immoral behavior," Brock Bastian writes in an article titled "Cleansing the Soul by Hurting the Flesh," which appears in the latest edition of the journal Psychological Science.

Bastian and his colleagues at the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia divided 62 volunteers into three groups and asked two of the groups to write about an occasion when they "rejected or socially excluded another person" -- in other words, when they did something they felt bad about. The third group wrote about a neutral "everyday interaction [they] had with another person yesterday."

All completed a questionnaire that tested for levels of guilt. Then one group that wrote about something they felt guilty for immersed their hand into a bucket of ice water for as long as they could (it hurts -- try it) while members of the second group that wrote about treating someone badly immersed a hand in a nice, warm bath. The third "control" group -- the folks who didn't write about being a jerk and didn't feel especially guilty -- also got the ice water treatment.

Afterward they all rated how painful it was and also how guilty they felt after it was over.

The verdict: those people who had written about rejecting someone not only left their hands in the ice water longer and reported more pain, but they also emerged feeling half as much guilt as those who got the warm water treatment.

In short, Bastian argues, we want to give meaning to pain, to portray it as a comprehensible part of a cosmic balance sheet or a means of achieving justice so that suffering is not pointless; indeed, the Latin word for pain is poena, which means "penalty."

"Understood this way, pain may be perceived as repayment for sin in three ways," he writes.

"First, pain is the embodiment of atonement. Just as physical cleansing washes away sin...physical pain is experienced as a penalty, and paying that penalty reestablishes moral purity. Second, subjecting oneself to pain communicates remorse to others (including God) and signals that one has paid for one's sins, and this removes the threat of external punishment. Third, tolerating the punishment of pain is a test of one's virtue, reaffirming one's positive identity to oneself and others."

Now maybe you don't have a guilty conscience. Or maybe you recoil from the thought of flagellating yourself everyday like that spooky albino monk from "The Da Vinci Code" who actually did have something to feel guilty about. (Though it turns out the late Pope John Paul II did something similar, and he is up for sainthood. Go figure.)

But Bastian's research does indicate that engaging in some form of physical self-denial during the 40 days of Lent (or the High Holy Days or the month of Ramadan or whatever you prefer) might be beneficial to easing normal guilt, and that today's milder forms of mortification -- giving up chocolate or going on a carbon fast (reducing energy consumption) or even making Ash Wednesday a "spa day," as one pastor is doing -- may not be enough.

On the other hand, an earlier paper on the same topic, by Rob Nelissen and Marcel Zeelenberg at Tilburg University in The Netherlands, also identified what it called "the Dobby effect" -- named after the self-punishing house elf from the "Harry Potter" series. Poor Dobby felt guilty for disobeying his (albeit evil) masters and could not make amends, and hence continually abused himself.

While Nelissen and Zeelenberg also showed that people tend to alleviate guilt by punishing themselves, they found that they take that option only when they are not able to directly repair their relationship with the person they believe they have hurt.

That may explain why people use general rituals of self-denial -- fasting or a stone in the shoe or a hair shirt in more extreme cases -- if they can't or won't bring themselves to apologize directly to the offended person and why Lenten penance is being adapted for wider social causes, like climate change or world hunger, in which there is a no individual person to whom we can say, "I'm sorry."

"[H]elping someone else...does not repair your relationship with the victim," Nelissen writes. "I think that by self-punishing we in fact try to send a signal of remorse to our victim to let him or her know we still care about the relationship, even though we are unable at present to make amends directly."

Nothing wrong with a little mortification, then, as long as we don't go around broadcasting our virtue like "the hypocrites," as Jesus warned.

And as long as we don't take it too far. The Catholic Church defines a "fast day" as having just one full meal, and exempts children under 14 and those over 60, and anyone who could not physically tolerate such a regimen. That's not too onerous, and is probably good for us given the nation's epidemic of obesity.

Simple, clear rituals of physical penance are also less likely to deteriorate into an overemphasis on personal guilt and expiation, which is criticized by traditional Christianity as "scrupulosity," and is diagnosed by psychiatry as an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Indeed, while guilt is so often dismissed as the unjust product of manipulative religions -- Catholic guilt, Jewish guilt, Puritan guilt, you name it -- Sigmund Freud and his disciples saw guilt as a fact of the human condition. And guilt can be good in motivating conscientious people to make amends to victims, if possible, or to the wider community, or to God, or all three.

The key is to do something about guilt rather than just going around banging our head against furniture. After all, who wants to be Dobby?

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42 Comments

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nikarltune

Pain is inflicted upon us all the time. In one way or another we do not need to look for it. Just to use the computer all day and for many years can cause lots of pain. The changes in weather and disease cause lots of anguish and pain. Just go through the stages of life can be painful and frightening. What one needs is to keep the mind occupied on beautiful creative activities such as walking, sewing, knitting, writing, gardening, preparing a wholesome nutrious meal, cleaning the apartment or house, washing the clothes, taking the kids to their daily events, visiting relatives and friends and sharing celebrations together as much as possible. Do not focus on the pain focus on being creative in a beautiful world created for us to keep good, fresh and thriving. Keep smiling because we are greatly loved. When you are dying you will be happy you lived a good life. Pain is not going to make your life better. Iti is the way you live your life.

March 09 2011 at 9:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Duane Wilson

Just when people think they're an advanced and enlightened culture/civilization, millions of clear thinking rational people put ashes on their foreheads. As Karl Marx said, "religion is the opiat of the People and Christopher Hutchins writes of how religion, "poisons everything".

March 09 2011 at 8:06 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
yetimaria

We feel guilt because we have consciences. Normal people "feel bad" when they do something wrong, normally! In ancient times they would sacrifice the lives of animals as an expiation, a making up for their wrong doings. Hence the term "scape goat". The Jews in biblical times would tear their clothes, pour ashes on their heads - not eat food for a time as a penance, a payment for their sins. Doing something difficult and not pleasant as a sign to God of our sorrow and shame for the evil we have done,( or for not having done a necessary good act) are healthy and not at all sick or medieval. What is mentally, emotionally and morally sick is to deny that there is sin and wrongs have must be righted. We live in the most dangerous era of history because in our society because we reject out of hand the very notion of Moral or Natural Law, the inherent proper sexual roles in society and the right to life of the unborn. And there you have it; take it or leave it.

March 09 2011 at 7:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
MSmailbox

Very good article!!! You covered the bases, from secular to religious, and several flavors of that. While I am a believer, I also recognize the need for medical help, at times. I suffer from OCD and have since childhood. Medicine, psychiatric in this case, can complement one's overall mental (and physical) health. If Jesus didn't trust doctors, Luke would never have made the cut, since he was a physician. Today, we know that mind and body are both intertwined. I can testify that I am a far better Christian, when I'm not on all fours picking lint out of the carpet, for hours! The Hoover works far better, and gives me time to socialize! May God comfort the hurting minds and emotions of His people.

March 09 2011 at 6:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dkt746

Why is the forehead chosen for ashes? Because it has the third eye chakra of the Hindus. Surely you have seen Hindu women/swami/sadhu marked between their eyes. "Tilaka" or "Bindi" is the mark of auspiciousness of Hindus, which may be done by marking the forehead with sacred ashes.
Ash Wednesday did not come from the Bible, and it appears by similarity to have come from Hinduism.
After all, christianity is Krishna-nity; Krishna is Lord Krishna; nity means...way of life.
As He says in holy Gita.
All religions came from Hinduism. It's the oldst religion is the world.

March 09 2011 at 6:14 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
MSmailbox

We are set free from guilt by faith in Jesus Christ and the suffering which was inflicted upon Him. Still, that's not an easy thing (faith), for many of us. Most of us have more than ample suffering in our own lives, without adding more. The boundary between a healthy penance and self-flagilation can become quite narrow. I believe that this is something best shared with a trusted elder, before one starts driving nails into their flesh. Penance is but a symbolic reminder of what Jesus accomplised, on the cross. We cannot punish ourselves into being good, but God can come into you, freeing you from guilt. Seek advice and accountability from someone else, lest you hurt yourself and some else that loves you. Giving up an unhealthy habit, can be great! When Lent is over, you might just discover that you don't really like it so much as you once thought. Freedom should be the goal, not imprisonment!

March 09 2011 at 6:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ebneila

To inflict pain on one's self or another to expiate guilt of the soul, is indeed, nothing new. Examples range from parents inflicting corpral punishment on an errant child, to being sentenced and tortured by the Inquisition.
However, people react differently to being hurt physically. Some may repent whereas, others become more entrenched and vengeful. Today, when existence of the soul has been called into question, pain itself has become THE means to an end. Many inflict pain because they love to see others suffer. I seriously doubt the throngs who cheerfully witnessed other humans and animals slaughtered at Roman Collesium cared about one whit about purification of the victims or themselves

March 09 2011 at 5:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rreggaeredkc

I am absolutely shocked by this article. This encourages self stimulative behaviors that can escalate, especially if encouraged! What is going on today????

March 09 2011 at 5:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dkurtz628

The thought of self punishment for the forgiveness of wrong doing to apease a person's guilt is rediculous. What is the biblical basis for this action. Where in the Bible can anyone find doctrine that teaches this? This article is just more secular psycho bable. It has no Christian foundation or truth to it.

Grace To You

March 09 2011 at 5:30 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
oregonlight

Talk about "Tales from the Crypt!" This is pretty much the lowest I've ever seen the Psycology community sink. I suppose this justifies teenagers 'cutting' themselves, or masochism, or most any other means to punish oneself. Praise our Lord and Savior that I don't need or desire such a state of mind. I have been redeemed from such nonsense. I tell you, this is a tool of Satan, who has convinced those who believe only in the worldly, and not in the spritual. I would ask only that those who haven't to honestly ask Jesus to clarify things, to believe in Him, and to ask Him into your life as Lord and Savior. It takes a simple one minute prayer, and then take it for what it's worth. THAT is how you are free of your failings, guilt, depression, and anxieties. Not this claptrap being spouted by wanna be Freuds.

March 09 2011 at 5:12 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to oregonlight's comment
ebneila

May I remind you, under the edit of Christianity's "Lord and Savior", more pain has been inflicted and blood shed on non-believers than by any other religion in history

March 09 2011 at 5:59 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

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