Guilt, these days, gets a lot of brickbats. It's true that obsessing over one's past errors is unproductive and unhealthy but maybe we are misinterpreting the function of guilt to tell us something. As our body warns us with pain when we misuse it, so too can our conscience warn us through our thoughts and emotions.
I'm not a historian of the evolution of Western psychological therapy, but I can say that blaming cultural conditioning for instilling guilt seems, to me, an overreaction to the cultural norms of the past.
And there are indeed some who try to "guilt-trip us." We have the proverbial Jewish mother "guilty tripping" her adult child for not calling her daily. We have the fundamentalist preacher or the priest preaching the threat of hellfire. This behavior can indeed inflict mental harm especially if instilled at an early age. But to claim that one should live a guilt-free life is like a tired old Existentialist throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
And, who knows, maybe the real message in regards to excessive preoccupation with guilt is simply a warning that we have become obsessive? That fact doesn't necessarily negate the message of guilt itself.
Meditation and introspection can help us discern whether guilt has a valid message for us to consider or whether it comes from outside ourselves and has no merit.
All I'm saying is that guilt has its place in our lives.
Paramhansa Yogananda counsels us that if confronted with a critique, ask yourself if there's any truth to it. If so, consider what you can do to change your behavior or make amends but, if you honestly, sincerely and calmly conclude there is no merit to the critique, then let it go.
His guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, advised in such heated moments to respond calmly, "Maybe you are right." By neither admitting nor denying, you buy time to contemplate the situation in a quieter, calmer moment. There are other responses too such as thanking a person and saying that you'll have to think about it. (When you are being critiqued as a representative of a principle or an organization, it may, however, be appropriate to be more proactive in your response because your response is not in self-justification but in self-defense of something greater than your ego.)
Take the heinous deed of Judas Iscariot.
Notwithstanding the claims of some interpretations of the Book of Judas, the canonical accounts make it clear that Judas betrayed Jesus and that when Judas realized his error he, out of guilt, killed himself. I'm not a proponent of suicide as a solution to anything but I do believe in the law of karma and its corollary, reincarnation.
Paramhansa Yogananda claimed to have met Judas in a recent incarnation which, after presumably many incarnations subsequent to his betrayal of Jesus, Judas had worked out his karma and achieved soul freedom with the help of an enlightened Indian master of the nineteenth century. Judas' recognition of the nature of his error, irrespective of the reaction of taking his own life, was obviously a goad to come back and carry on the work of redemption. Even as merely an interesting story, it has a message for us.
It is important not "to kill the messenger" of guilt and ignore the message. This is true whether the feeling of guilt rises up within you or is delivered uncharitably by someone else. It takes courage to perform the spiritual surgery of self-examination and ruthless self-honesty. Wallowing in one's guilt and defining oneself by our mistakes is the mistake that we make all too often: by so doing we effectively excuse ourselves from making the effort to change.
Once we resolve to do better, we need to shake the dust of guilt from our feet and get back up and carry on with our journey toward soul-perfection. It is at THIS stage that the modern disdain for guilt has its place. As Swami Sri Yukteswar was quoted by Paramhansa Yogananda in "Autobiography of a Yogi," "Forget the past. The vanished lives of all men are dark with many shames. Human conduct is ever unreliable until anchored in the Divine. Everything in future will improve if you are making a spiritual effort now."
This quote truly sums up the wisdom of how to deal with our errors.
As Lord Krishna teaches us in his homily to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, the soul is pure, free, and without stain just as God beyond creation is the same. Live more in the freedom of the soul and karma cannot touch you. If the "I" that erred has been dissolved there is no "I" to which karma that can hurt you.
Let us congratulate Judas on his spiritual victory and let us work on our own with as much courage and determination.