Ash Wednesday Idea: Beat Guilt This Lent -- Literally


David Gibson

Religion Reporter
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?