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Demons That Remain: When We’re Haunted By Guilt and Remorse

How to cast out the goblins that come tapping at our chamber door.

Now that the ghosts and goblins of Halloween have departed, what should we do about the demons that remain: the ghosts of guilt and the goblins of remorse?

If we want to talk about being haunted, we must begin with Edgar Allan Poe, the maestro of the morbid and the macabre. The critic Allan Bloom, who had a dim view of Poe’s poetic talent, acknowledged Poe’s inescapable popularity: “No other American writer—Whitman, Emerson, Mark Twain, Faulkner—is so widely read, both domestically and abroad.” Why? “Poe dreamed universal nightmares, and still frightens children. To dream everyone’s nightmare has to be genius, which cannot be denied Poe.”

In Poe’s most famous poem, the nightmare is evoked by the midnight appearance of a raven, which Poe describes as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore” that persists in croaking a single word: “Nevermore.” Ravens are scavenger birds that eat the flesh of other creatures that have died. Not only does the raven therefore symbolize death, death is the raven’s very sustenance. In this case, the beloved Lenore has died, and it is her death that calls forth the raven and her absence that gives the poem its motive force.

But something seems amiss in the poet’s reaction to his loss of Lenore. He speaks of fantastic terrors and of being haunted by horror. In my experience, we don’t often use that kind of language to describe the loss of a loved one. We talk about the pain we feel and the anguish we experience. We feel grief-stricken and crushed, sometimes listless and depressed. But we don’t usually say we are terrorized by the death of someone we love. We don’t say we are haunted, at least not in a quasi-demonic sense, by the loss.

If we are not haunted by loss, by what are we haunted? Alfred Lord Tennyson, a notably better poet than Poe, wrote a poem titled “Remorse” that gets at the heart of feeling haunted – not by an apparition in the night, but by the past. Tennyson speaks of the gloom and guilt that brought on by the vices of life and by the memories of mis-spent years. The result of this self-assessment makes for wretched nights: “Remorse, with soul-felt agony, holds up the mirror to my view.”

The word remorse comes from a Latin word meaning “to bite again,” which is why the dictionary defines remorse as “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.” This is what terrorizes us in the twilight and haunts us in the midnight hours: the worrisome knowledge of the damage we have done and the anguish we have inflicted, as well as the way in which we have failed ourselves and shortchanged our future. It comes from knowing we remained silent when we should have spoken, or failed to respond when action was called for. Remorse is the ghost that comes tapping at our chamber door.

What can we do about our feelings of remorse? One of the options on the customs form you fill out when coming into the United States from abroad is this: nothing to declare. When the little box next to this line has been checked, you are saying that you have no illicit cheese secreted in your toiletry case, no contraband sausages stuffed in your socks, and no diamonds in the soles of your shoes. You have nothing to hide and nothing you can be called to account for. You have nothing to declare.

In the realm of meaning, our goal should be the same: to have nothing to declare. This does not mean we have always acted perfectly in the past or that we have always lived up to our potential. Nor does it mean that the consequences of our failures won’t continue into the future. Rather, it means that we aren’t trying to hide the truth from ourselves and others. It means we are not living a lie.

Here’s an idea: take time to list the people with whom you need to be more honest or make things right. Put yourself at the top of the list. Then jot down next to each name how you can make progress this week. In a week, get out your list and update your progress. Seem too simple? My guess is that we most often find ourselves stymied in life not because we don’t know what to do, but because we don’t do what we know.

If we commit to standing down our demons in this way, then the next time we are tempted to be less than honest with ourselves and others, our response can be that of Poe’s raven: “Nevermore!”

More from Galen Guengerich Ph.D.
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