We are, May and the existentialists argue, shaken to our foundations with anxiety when we are faced with the issue of fulfilling our potentialities, like moving on to get a new job, or starting a new relationship or changing from one area in a country to another, or even emigrating for that matter. All such possible developments of our potentialities fill us with anxiety. Now, we have already discussed how this anxiety is not just something we “have,” but is rather something we actually “are” in virtue of our human condition. It is likewise with ontological guilt. It is a state where the person denies these very potentialities and fails to fulfil them. Again, at the risk of stating the obvious, guilt is not simply something one “has,” but rather is something one actually “is” ontologically. The German psychiatrist Medard Boss argues that such an understanding takes the real phenomenon of guilt seriously and with respect.
There is another type of ontological guilt that our psychotherapist friend May refers to and that is the guilt we share with all of our fellow human beings in virtue of the fact that we can only look at the world through our own blinkered vision of reality. We have no choice but to look at the world through our own eyes, with our own built in limitations. Once again, let’s listen to the May’s words here:
There are other forms [of ontological guilt] as well. Another, for example, is ontological guilt against one’s fellows, arising from the fact that since each of us is an individual, each necessarily perceives his fellow man through his own limited and biased eyes. This means that he always to some extent does violence to the true picture of his fellow man and always to some extent fails fully to understand and meet the other’s needs. This is not a question of moral failure or slackness- though it can indeed be greatly increased by lack of moral sensitivity... This guilt, rooted in our existential structure, is one of the most potent sources of a sound humility, and an unsentimental attitude of forgiveness towards one’s fellow men. (Ibid., p. 115)
Now, we would do well to re-read the above quoted lines from May, and especially the last sentence as it would have considerable positive influence not alone on our own lives, but on the lives of those whom it is our privilege to encounter on a daily basis.
May, at this point introduces us to three terms which are very much worth knowing, i.e., Eigenwelt, Mitwelt and Umwelt which he will discuss in chapter 9. The type of guilt where one fails to develop one’s potentialities is linked very much with the Eigenwelt, that is, our very own world, our inner world. The second form of guilt just immediately discussed roughly corresponds with Mitwelt, since it is guilt chiefly related to one’s fellow human beings. There is a third form of ontological guilt, which is related to what is termed the Umwelt, or nature or the world as a whole. This guilt is a “separation guilt” which we feel, having consciously separated ourselves out from nature and set ourselves above it as it were. Indeed, since Rollo May wrote these words in 1981, look at all the pollution and destruction we have subjected our planet to, all done to it in an objectified format as if we were not part of it at all. No wonder we suffer from repressed ontological “separation guilt.”! Much more needs to be written on this most complex and comprehensive aspect of ontological guilt. I will return to this topic when I deal with the concept of Gaia in future posts.
In summary, there is no escaping ontological guilt, because we are each participants in it in virtue of our humanity. Let us remind ourselves, should we need this timely reminder, that ontological guilt can never come from cultural prohibitions, but is always rooted in the fact of our very own self-awareness. Finally May cautions us that ontological guilt should never be confused with morbid or neurotic guilt. However, if it is unaccepted or repressed, it may turn into such a type of guilt.