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The Gift of Innocence – Part 1 of Revisiting Guilt and Innocence

From Of Seeds and Sowers, NAICR’s distinguished newsletter that includes current programs, projects and tele-classes, as well as humor and inspiration. Visit the site to learn more about the work of Barbara Ashley Phillips and Kenneth Cloke.

Part 2

In this issue we’re going to explore the dynamics of guilt and innocence and learn how each can be constructive, as well as destructive. These two are major features of conflict situations. To really get the flavor of this, we begin with ourselves, for this is powerful material and benefits greatly from aging within us. By reckoning with the conflicting currents within ourselves, we grow our understanding and at the same time build our effectiveness with others. Once again, we get to re-examine long-held beliefs and assumptions and decide what is worth keeping and what is worth releasing.

So take a deep breath, and let’s plunge in.

What is the one thing you would most not like to give up? We gladly give our time, our intelligence, our skills, our resources – to all kinds of things. But there is something that we hold back – perhaps not in all things, but in some things. What is that something? What does it mean to withhold it? What would happen if we gladly gave it away, too?

Think back over the past day, the past week, the past month, or in recent years. Has there been a situation, in that time, when you not only knew you were right and the other one was wrong, but also it meant something to you? As you recall it, notice whether your voice has an edge, whether you feel hurt and angry, whether you feel that tightness growing in your solar plexus, your jaw or your shoulders? These are the painful and obvious markers when something means something to us.

Thinking back on it now, we can often feel that same tightness, that same sense of justification, that same sense of having been hurt. What is that? What keeps the hurt in place? What perpetuates, long after the fact, the feelings of anger, hurt and justification? We can definitely notice that it is uncomfortable, perhaps painful, and highly distracting.

Could we be intentionally holding on to something so unpleasant? Why would we do such a thing? If this painful recollection should be evoked when we are working with others on their conflict, what happens to our effectiveness? We find ourselves hooked by our own reactions, off-balance, unavailable when we are most needed. Is there anything we can do?

To begin exploring possible answers, we may look more deeply into the meaning of guilt and innocence. I have noticed how I feel innocent when I act in support of the values and permissible behaviors of my family, organization, culture and group. There is comfort in this. No matter how bad what we do is, it does not trouble our consciences so long as it serves our belonging to our group. I remember, for example, the righteous feeling of people fighting against the Nazis in WWII. There was never any doubt that our side was the right side. How stirring are those times of being right according to the rules of our group!

It was not until much later that I learned something that is rarely if ever talked about here. I learned that during the daylight bombing raids on Germany towards the end of the war, the Allies – our side – not only bombed the cities of Germany – dropping fire bombs on homes, churches, and public buildings, killing hundreds of thousands of women, children and the aged. We also used bombs with delayed detonation. They would not go off until the firefighters and rescue workers had come to pull the injured from the wreckage. Then they would explode – and they were dirty bombs, filled with shrapnel that caused terrible wounds. For more on this see Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut.

That wasn’t taught in our history classes. We looked at the wounded from our side, and the atrocities of their side. Our selective listening, and our selective remembering, hid all this from us. Yet we bear the burden of it just the same. Blinding ourselves to what is, doesn’t change the reality. Our version was, at best, only a partial truth. The justification for our bombing strategy was that we intended to break the will of the Germany people. It never happened. German war production continued to grow at a rate of 10% right up to the last 6 months of the war. Even today, in Germany, adults who were children then remember those raids: seeing neighbors’ homes leveled, their grandparents or parents killed, their playmates killed. One house destroyed; the one next to it, standing unscathed. Did such an experience make anyone welcoming of the Allies? How could it?

Or remember My Lai, where American troops in Vietnam massacred a village – just because it was there. The soldiers were no different from us. They had, as we have, simply identified the Vietnamese as other – less than human. So, too, with the Japanese and the Germans in WW II – we made them into demons – something less than human – so we could with a clear conscience do what we did to them. We were innocent in our own minds, and in order to perpetuate the myth of our own innocence we had to hide certain truths from our awareness. These are historical examples of family secrets.

We do the same thing, more intimately, when we get righteous about something or someone. We think of them as stupid, incapable of reason, unable to hear and understand, and sometimes even willfully malevolent. And each time we let ourselves revisit them or the situation, we get the tight jaw, the tight shoulders, the tight gut. Yet through it all, we maintain our innocence – they were wrong. We were right.

The work I have been doing this year with family and systems constellation has changed my understanding of guilt and innocence. Bert Hellinger, developer of family and systems constellation work, shows how these account for the greatest crimes against humanity being committed. Many of us are familiar with the atrocities of others. Few are familiar with the atrocities of our own group. It is a “family secret” that no one talks about yet everyone is affected by.

Hellinger writes that peace cannot begin outside of each of our own souls, that it begins when “all that we previously judged, regretted, and repressed in ourselves . . .can take its rightful place next to all that we have approved of. It can be recognized, even loved, for its significance, its consequences, and its contributions to our growth.” Peace Begins In The Soul, Family Constellations in the Service of Reconciliation, Bert Hellinger, ((Carl Auer, 2003)

And it has become clear to me that unless we are willing to give up our claim to innocence, there can be no peace. Innocence looks good only on a child. On an adult, on me and you, it signals an unwillingness to see what really is, a preference for suffering, a reluctance to grow up. We recognize the physical, mental and emotional discomfort of holding on to past wrongs – the suffering that comes of it – yet for most of us, most of the time, it is easier to suffer than to change. Our identity somehow gets wound up in our perspective.

Starting with our selves has an honesty to it that starting with another does not. The seeing of another as needing to change, implies a superiority over that person. When we are approached by someone who wants to change us, we don’t feel seen. It is as if the other person is so invested in their ideas about us that there is no room for us. If we can, we separate ourselves from them quickly. If we cannot, we endure them.

If you’ve found a situation where you are caught by innocence, re-examine it. Gently see where you have contributed to your own pain. Look kindly on your own contribution to the difficulty or situation or your memory of it. If you can do this with inner openness – without numbness and without inner tightness – your perspective will shift and your heart will open a little. Your growing edge that was dulled by the lie, will be restored. If you look with judgment and self-criticism or even without inner softness, you will not be released from your self-imposed suffering.

It is easier to suffer than it is to change. If you are suffering from something that happened in the past, the dark of winter is an ideal time to move beyond it – with a gentleness that sees how very human we are – how very human we all are. This in no way requires anyone else to change. Yet, when you change, everything changes – more evidence of how connected we really are.

For years, I’ve taught a forgiveness process. When someone forgives – meaning that they let go of the tightness and rightness around what another has done – they become visibly younger and more beautiful. It takes perhaps 20 minutes, yet it produces change that goes way beyond the person doing the forgiveness. Often, the other person “forgiven” — knowing nothing of the forgiveness event — will contact the one who has done the “forgiveness” within a few hours or a few days. How could they know? We don’t know. We only know how common that outcome is.

Our contribution to peace comes not from our vocation, but from the inside. When we let the light of reality shine in the dark corners of our lives, we become free in a way that we haven’t been. Perhaps we didn’t know we were caught. But we will know when the burden lifts and we are free.

Whatever you find you can acknowledge, that you hadn’t before, is a gift. It is the gift of your innocence that you give to yourself most of all. When you give it – you may be stimulated to take steps to make amends for whatever happened before as a result of your denial. Lost friendships can be restored and communication channels, long closed, reopened. Such riches are the reward for the new clarity you bring to your life. Acknowledging is the price you pay for your own freedom. With it, you have earned the reward.

Next issue, we’ll continue with this theme – looking at guilt and how guilt, like innocence, can both protect us from what is and serve greater truth.


Barbara Ashley Phillips

Barbara Phillips has 19 years of widely varied mediation experience, specializing in complex, technical and sensitive matters. A graduate of Yale Law School, Phillips served as an Assistant United States Attorney and practiced primarily federal civil trial law in Oregon and California prior to becoming a mediator. In Phillips' mediations,… MORE >

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