Merriam Webster defines guilt as "a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong." The knowing part is one thing. You did something wrong, you're aware of it. A little guilt is probably appropriate. But just as pain is the body's way of telling us to stop doing something, guilt is our mind's way of indicating the need for a behavioral change. Perhaps we owe someone an apology. Perhaps we need to confess our error to someone, or just do something else to make it right. Hanging on to the guilt, avoiding the solution due to embarrassment or fear, over time, will cause emotional damage.
Worse, though, is the guilt caused by thinking you did something bad, and we all do this to ourselves, especially when comparing our lives or actions or possessions with other people's. I don't have any money, but I still have a warm house and plenty of food -- I must be guilty, because so many other people without money are suffering. I got these awesome new slippers for Christmas and I love them -- I must be guilty because I know people who don't have any shoes, let alone slippers. I ate a piece of fudge -- that makes me guilty because I'm overweight and shouldn't eat sugar.
These self-inflicted guilt trips are difficult to overcome, because there's no tangible victim, no result from our action, no restitution, except to try to be a better person, an endless effort toward a goal that cannot be achieved. How can we overcome guilt that has no cause?
It makes sense, then, to be embarrassed about our guilt. We're ashamed of whatever action made us feel guilty, so we really don't want to talk about it. Shame is a close relative of guilt. It's only useful when it nudges us into action. Carrying our shame and guilt around in secret, like a dark, heavy burden, can destroy us. It eats at our confidence, then our self worth, then our identity itself. It gains power like a cyclone, spinning ever faster and tighter until we are sucked into an emotional void.
So what's the solution? Action! I've participated in many biblical arguments about whether good acts are a requirement of Christianity, or if we are saved by God's grace no matter what our behavior. The bottom line is that I don't care. I don't know any more than the wisest scholars what God wants or forgives. I only know that action heals me. That when I'm working for good, helping people, even just caring and connecting, my guilt and shame dissolve.
You don't have to go out on the streets to help people (although it's a wonderful feeling and I recommend it). You just have to put on an attitude of caring. It's easy to slip into, like a favorite old jacket. Just decide to care. Guilt will fade into nothingness, and miracles will happen.