Collective Guilt

A colleague of mine recently wrote to me that that members of her American family are debating the issue of that nation’s collective guilt over the Iraqi war. In Canada, federal politicians apologized last month on behalf of our collective guilt over the treatment of First Nations peoples in residential schools. Reparations were made in Japan only recently over the treatment of Korean “comfort women” during the second world war. Catholics baptize, in the belief that they are washing away the original sin of their great ancestors Adam and Eve. The list goes on…
Complacence feeds this guilt while activism, however ineffective, salves our conscience. Therefore writers write, philosophers ponder, teachers teach, politicians protest and militants militate against this tsunami of mankind’s inconsiderate historical harvest that threatens to wash us away; a flood built up of every action our ancestors took for selfish gain. And yet, salvation ( heaven, nirvana • call it what you may) is a personal journey and attained by actions of the self for the self. Even aid workers risking their lives in Africa are banking brownie points in heaven. So these past actions must have been justified at the time in the eyes of the committer, however flawed they sound to us now.
Is the key to reversing this tsunami, or at least to reduce it to a mild tropical storm, a set of self•less actions based on moral teachings, taken at a global level, in every country, in every little hamlet, for a sustained period (something akin to the 1000 years of peace foretold in the Book of Revelations), in the hope that every new good reaction will neutralize the old bad actions?
Or do we do what most people do during hurricane season: batten down the hatches, stock up on food and stay indoors in the hope that this thing blows over, that Newton’s law will fulfill itself automatically?
Or, if we still feel that salvation is a personal journey,do we do what is within our control to make this world a better place • practise random acts of kindness • a smile, a gentle touch to someone burdened, a song that infuses an audience, a poem that touches the heart, a lesson that places a younger person on the right path?
Collective or not, the guilt is within each of us, and that is the battle that needs to be fought with the tools given to us.

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