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Plague as Punishment

On the eve of Tisha B’Av, a rumination on how we experience our worst misfortunes as punishments, and how some move from that to self-punishment and then to punishing others

Norman Doidge
July 29, 2020
Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), from the Nuremberg Chronicle/Wikimedia Commons
Flagellants, 1493Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), from the Nuremberg Chronicle/Wikimedia Commons
Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), from the Nuremberg Chronicle/Wikimedia Commons
Flagellants, 1493Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), from the Nuremberg Chronicle/Wikimedia Commons

When misfortune befalls the Jews, we often blame … ourselves, and say we had it coming. It happened because of some kind of moral transgression on our part. That was what we have done, historically. And that is a major theme of Lamentations, one of the readings for Tisha B’Av, the Jewish holy day that commemorates and mourns the destruction of two Temples, and other catastrophes and massacres from ancient times through the Middle Ages and beyond. It lists many reasons why the Jews deserved to lose what they cherished most. Some argue that it is that tendency—perhaps even ability—to examine, criticize, and blame ourselves, as opposed to others, that permitted us to get our tribal act together and survive for millennia. Examining one’s actions after a political catastrophe, in which there is often a human hand in the matter, makes sense. But blaming ourselves for plagues, famine, and drought, does, for someone living in the shadow of science, seem to take human responsibility rather far. It seems to partake of that egocentric frame of mind that characterizes the psyche in its earliest stages of evolution, or at its most primitive: The world revolves around us; the physical forces of the universe are woven into our lives, and if lightning strikes us, it is not random, it’s personal. If rain comes after long absence, it is because we are blessed; if a plague comes, it is because we are cursed. That seems so archaic.

So, why do we still do it?

And why, when we suffer misfortune, do we add insult to injury, and kick ourselves while we are down, and so often feel we somehow deserve it?

I fell upon this following arresting passage, in a work of the Australian sociologist—and I would add, a philosopher of sorts, though others call him a “metaphysical sociologist”—John Carroll. Professor Carroll did his Ph.D., at Cambridge with the literary critic George Steiner, unusual for a sociologist. In Carroll’s brilliant early study, On Guilt, (my twisted idea of leisure reading), which he recently reissued and updated, he examines how the human experience of guilt has been transformed over the centuries. It is of sociological and psychological interest that what we call guilt was, in medieval times, expressed and dealt with in a very performative and highly physical way, as though sin was like a bad substance that could, and should, be extracted from the body. This “physical” or “concrete” experience of it, as though it could be purged, can’t be emphasized enough. He writes:

There were times when medieval individuals were overwhelmed by a sense of sin. For example, some of the worst plagues, or rumours of approaching plague, inspired flagellation cults. Members of these cults believed that plague was sent by God to punish sinners. If humans could purge themselves of sin, they would be immune. It was typical of the Middle Ages that expiation should take an unambiguously physical form: The flagellants lashed themselves with scourges carrying knots or iron tips until the blood ran down their backs. They believed that their blood might mingle with that of Christ, cleansing them of sin. The ephemerality of the sense of sin is marked by the short-lived presence of these cults; they died out as soon as the threat of plague receded.

It was the incapacity to see sin and guilt in anything other than physical terms that necessitated the bloodletting; and yet, because the ritual was so physical, it gives us, it seems to me, a glimpse of the extent to which the people of the time felt that the external plague was the product of something within them. Something about their terror of the plague, threatening as it did, the entire world as they knew it, created a loosening of psychic structures or bonds, that allowed a whole new mass movement to arise—for that is what these cults became, ultimately spreading across Europe in the very wake of plague itself. The confluence of two remarkable events: A plague, and a large number of people suddenly attacking—flagellating—themselves for their moral failings, somehow rang a bell.

John Carroll’s source, I found after contacting him in Melbourne (we had followed each other’s work, and keep in touch) was Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, a magisterial study of outbreaks among Christians of a mystical millenarianism in the Middle Ages. Millenarianism was the belief, “on the authority of the Book of Revelation (XX, 4-16), that after his Second Coming Christ would establish a messianic kingdom on earth and would reign over it for a thousand years before the Last Judgment. …”

Cohn noted that millennial movements arose in disorienting and insecure periods, (our own comes to mind), often among the poor, but not only. They came to believe the Second Coming would be “soon and sudden,” occurring in their lifetime, and that it would be “miraculous,” and “realized on this earth and not in some other-worldly heaven.” Moderns might say millenarianism was the religious form of utopianism; but it would be more accurate to say that our utopian movements are modernized forms of millenarianism, particularly in terms of the aspiration for a kind of heaven on earth.

Too bad humanity would not simply ease into this blissful state. These wonders would only occur after a decisive but extremely violent apocalyptic encounter or war between the forces of good and evil, the good led by God (or his representative, the warrior Messiah), who had been displeased by the behavior of all the unbelievers and sinners, which is why he sent plague, famine, and conflict in the first place. He would lead the fight to exterminate evil once and for all. Thus, the millenarians saw the violence not simply as tragic, but as a necessary stage, the way many modern revolutionaries see violent armed struggle as the price that must be paid to establish a just society and heaven on earth.

Flagellants are people who, by definition, whip themselves, so the term “self-flagellation” is actually redundant, except perhaps to remind the reader how awkward it is biomechanically to give oneself a good flogging. It reminds us of the extent of pious devotion required. Flagellation was, argues Cohn, basically unknown until the 11th century, when it appears to have been invented by resourceful hermits in monastic communities, who could not count on others being available to whip them when they got the urge. It soon became the commonest penitential technique in the monasteries. Monks then introduced flagellation—gifted it, some would say—to the public at large.

The first flagellation movement originated in Italy, following shortly after an outbreak of plague in 1259. Writes Cohn:

It was in the crowded Italian cities that organized flagellant processions appeared for the first time. The movement was launched in 1260 by a hermit of Perugia and spread southwards to Rome and northwards to Lombard cities with such rapidity that to contemporaries it appeared a sudden epidemic of remorse.

It was called an “epidemic” of remorse, because the spectacle of public confessions, apologies and physical penance, spread so quickly throughout so much of Europe, and because the impact of this public penance was very great, often affecting the whole of a society. “Whole towns became involved in the movement—at Reggio the chief magistrate, the bishop and all the guilds took part. As the processions moved along they constantly increased in size, until they were many thousand strong … People of all classes joined in …”

Cohn describes a typical spectacle: “Led by priests, masses of men, youths and boys, marched day and night with banners and burning candles, from town to town.” When the flagellants arrived at the church, they’d flog themselves in public as a group and make their confessions. Sometimes, the whips had not just spikes, but metal hooks that pulled out bits of their flesh, leaving gaping holes on their bodies. There were also moments of poignancy, too, as when robbers returned some of the loot they had stolen to the people they had stolen it from, and criminals confessed, and enemies reconciled.

Not only was this an attempt to deal with plague; these were also times of significant political strife, and the political battles were all given an eschatological significance. Many had come to believe that 1260 was the year of the apocalypse. The end of the world was nigh. Thus, the individual flagellators considered their own self-flagellation not only as an atonement for themselves, but for all mankind in order to save it. If they punished themselves enough, the hope was, they would preempt God’s ultimate punishment, which promised an even greater catastrophe for all. Thus they went about in public, dripping blood in an imitatio Christi—i.e., identifying with the crucified, martyred Jesus—suffering for the sins of others.

The rapidity with which the movement spread to Germany, France, and then throughout Europe suggests that this was a group psychological phenomenon, based on a shared emotional experience that was underlying receptivity to the cult. Then the cult died down when that wave of the plague had passed.

The next epidemic of remorse and mass self-flagellation occurred in 1348-49 with the outbreak of the Black Death—the bubonic plague—which became the greatest tragedy, in terms of mortality, to affect Western Europe in 1,000 years, killing more, historians believe, than died in both World Wars combined. Some historians believe it killed every third European. One can’t underestimate the terror that pervaded everyday life.

Corpses lay everywhere unburied, and the towns were completely overwhelmed. This time, the movement began in Hungary, and spread again, like the plague itself, throughout Europe. This time, the flagellants were more organized, and they had uniforms—white robe, red cross, a hood—and their own chants and songs. They roved in bands, sometimes in the thousands.

We know some of what they were thinking, because their creed was written out in “The Heavenly Letter,” which stated that God himself had inscribed a marble tablet with a message for humanity, explaining why the plague had come. The tablet, it was said, had descended onto the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. As recounted in The Heavenly Letter, an angel read God’s message to those present. He was angry at humanity for its many sins and blasphemies (improper speech) and the plague and famine were to be humankind’s punishment. He had decided to kill every last living thing on Earth. But, hearing His threat, the Virgin Mary and the angels fell at His feet and implored Him to give humanity one last chance to mend their ways. God was moved. So the angel appeared to bid mankind to embark on the flagellant processions, and purify themselves.

The urgency of the matter meant that self-chastisement would have to be extremely rigorous if it was to divert the plague and the destruction of humanity. But this time, the chastisement didn’t stop with the self.

The flagellation movement evolved into members being very concerned not only with their own thoughts, sins, and remorse, but with the thoughts and sins, and absence of remorse of others, and the need to rectify those wayward souls.

The leaders, as is typical in a cult, insisted first and foremost on complete uniformity of thought and behavior of their followers, and expected them to show absolute doctrinal obedience to their masters (lay people chosen for the role). Members were told when they could, and could not, speak to others. If they did speak without permission—for example, a single word to a woman would be enough— they had to come before the master, kneel, and he would beat them until they would make a further confession and pay penance. In keeping with the very physical experience of sin in the Middle Ages, sometimes the posture they assumed would symbolize their particular sins, in a kind of Marcel Marceau reenactment. But most commonly, when they arrived at a new town, they would go to the church, disrobe, put on a skirt, prostrate themselves, lying face down and motionless with outstretched arms in the form of a crucifix, making clear they were identified with Jesus. Then, the flagellation with the iron spikes began, and the Heavenly Letter was read aloud.

Cohn points out that at first the onlookers, and the masses in the population, were generally well-disposed toward the performance and the flagellations. Cohn sufficiently mastered eight ancient and medieval languages for his research, and could find no records of people having questioned the authenticity of the Heavenly Letter. These were martyrs doing the rest of the town a favor, taking on the town’s sins to avert the plague. But this would change.

While the flagellants enjoyed the support of both the ecclesiastical and secular authorities in Italy and France, once the movement spread to Germany, it became a militant anti-establishment, revolutionary movement, devoted to overthrowing the Catholic Church and the papacy.

One might think that taking on the Catholic Church would have kept the movement busy. But no. The flagellants also found time to become viciously anti-Semitic. The increasing terror of the Black Death had raised the masses and the flagellants to a fever pitch of messianic, utopian hopes. They had already sanctified violence in their attacks on themselves. It was a small step to share it around. Their processions, depicting the Last Days (which were to be the days of violence before the coming of a warrior messiah) had songs with lyrics such as,

Plague ruled the common people and overthrew many,
The earth quaked. The people of the Jews is burnt,
A strange multitude of half-naked men beat themselves.

Thus the flagellants turned not only on the clergy, but the Jews, and played a major role in the great massacres of European Jews that occurred during several waves over the course of the Black Death. The first mass murders occurred when they came to believe that Jews had caused the plague by poisoning the wells. Those massacres ended by March 1349. Some think they ended because people noticed Jews (who had seemed less likely to die) were dying of the plague as well. The flagellants restarted murdering Jews four months later, overcoming the authorities who tried to protect them. They exterminated the entire population of the Jewish quarter of Frankfurt. They were ultimately driven out by the authorities there, but then massacred the Jews of Mainz, Cologne, and Brussels. In the Low Countries, Jews were burned and drowned by the flagellants, who said they did it, to “please God.”

The pope issued a papal bull against the flagellants, depicting them as simple folk led astray by heretics, and war broke out between the flagellants and the Church. The pope stated that shedding the blood of the Jews was a crime, and it was a form of Christian piety to sustain them. But the decimation was so great, that the Jews did not recover for centuries, if ever.

Ultimately, the movement showed signs of anarchism, having made the error of taking on a Church it could not defeat, and their marches were gradually turned back. Their members were hung, beheaded, burned as heretics, and made subject to an ongoing inquisition. They were rooted out to the point they became a hunted underground movement. But that did not stop them. In 1391-92, when a plague was again raging, a Church inquisitor at Heidelberg found flagellants were still slaughtering Jews, and he caught and burned their leaders. Sixty more years of this occurred, ending in mass trials of the flagellants, with them either recanting or being burned. By the end of it, the secular authorities and the Church were so fed up with them, they burned them even when they recanted. An awful ending for a horrific mass movement that began by embracing a human passion that would seem to be ennobling: remorse.

Why might people undergoing a plague attack themselves—is not the plague punishment enough?

On first glance, a world in which people whip themselves and then quickly start burning other people alive, suggests that they are sadomasochists, and that this is some kind of perversion, in the medical sense. But let’s leave that aside for the moment.

The idea that “a plague is our punishment” is so common across cultures, and throughout history, and expressed so clearly in the surviving texts of ancient peoples (not just among Jews), that it rises to being an archetypal idea, which suggests that it is expressing something almost innate in the human psyche, related to the development of conscience. This idea—that there is some intimate relationship between plague, sin, and punishment—survives in English vernacular, as when we say of someone with a bad conscience, that he or she is “plagued with self-doubt.

I find myself wondering if the term ‘epidemics of remorse’ is actually the most apt one for the phenomenon, because I wonder if searching one’s soul, and achieving remorse, can ever truly be accomplished while in a group.

Within the monotheisms, plagues were accepted as a sign of an omnipotent God’s anger or displeasure with us for our moral failings as a community. If one sees God as omnipotent, just, and concerned with our moral actions, as the Hebrews did, it follows that He could punish humanity with something as destructive as a plague. There are numerous references to plague as punishment in the Bible (and also credible suggestions that some of the Mosaic laws could help fend off certain diseases). There is reference in the Bible to the ancient Near Eastern plague God, Nergal, and many ancient cultures had specific “plague gods,” (Apollo, was one, and both brought and delivered peoples from plagues.) The sense that plagues were deserved continued through the ages, and not only among, “simple folk.” Petrarch, the 14th-century Italian Renaissance poet and scholar, survived the Black Death, but his beloved Laura did not. Petrarch wrote to his brother, the sole survivor of 35 people who succumbed to it in a monastery in Monrieux, of this sense of “deserving” the plagues that are sent us. He first recalls some of the scenes that were, until recently, unprecedented in our own lives. As the plague raged in Parma, he wrote:

in what annals has it ever been read the houses were left vacant, cities deserted, the country neglected, the fields too small for the dead and a fearful and universal solitude over the whole earth? ... Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with fables. We have, indeed, deserved these [punishments] and even greater; but our forefathers also have deserved them, and may our posterity not also merit the same …

Here, one of the more thoughtful men of the Renaissance accepts the plague with resignation because it is deserved. Put differently, human sin is a plague of sorts, that spreads from generation to generation, and manifests in actual physical plagues.

One would think that such conclusions would not occur in our times because, after all, we know pandemics and plagues are caused by microorganisms. But many people have come very close to describing the pandemic as deserved. It was evident in the upsurge of blame, of all kinds, during the initial outbreak of the novel coronavirus, cast on various countries, peoples, agencies, the sloppy habits and hygiene of our fellow citizens, our way of life, living in such dense cities, the way we abuse animals in wet markets in the East and in industrial slaughterhouses in the West, and our manipulations of the environment, CO2 emissions. It was seen in the offhanded summary comments saying that, “we, who have trampled the Earth, had it coming.” So, one need not believe in an omnipotent, just God, to be prone to interpret setbacks as some kind of recompense. This is not to say that some of these associations are not true; it is rather, to highlight the fact that these realizations were accompanied by a sense that the deaths that ensued (and which will continue to happen) were “deserved.”

As a psychiatrist, one meets patients who interpret setbacks (here I am thinking of ones that were obviously beyond their own control) as “deserved,” every day in practice, when people attack themselves, with their own internal judge, when things go wrong. It is often called “depression,” of course, but there is much more to it.

I think the source of this is a remnant of, or the aftermath of, how we were trained to become moral beings. As children, before we reach the ability to reason well, we are almost all told the same fairy tale. We are taught not to lie, because, “Honesty is the best policy,” meaning, “Be honest, and you will be rewarded, or at least not punished.” We are taught, “It is good to share, because if you give to others, they will be happy, and will share with you,” but many a sibling will point out that that is not a universally valid law of human behavior. We are told punishments are deserved, too. If a very young child, before the “age of reason,” hits his newborn sister repeatedly fearing that her arrival is causing him to lose too much of his beloved mother’s and father’s attention, he is punished—restrained, sent to his room, scolded, maybe hit, and Mommy and Daddy will appear extremely displeased if not mad. But in what way is the punishment truly “deserved”? This child is correct, most likely, that the sister is the occasion of the loss of a huge amount of his mother’s attention, at least, and he is certainly not capable yet of the level of reasoning or empathy, to understand “why” he is being punished, only that he is. He doesn’t so much “deserve” the punishment, as it is the best the parent can do to stop him from hurting the infant sister. But when the punishment comes, the governing powers in his world, his parents, will persuade him that he did in fact “deserve” it. (I write this, as someone unaware that anyone has ever found a way around this conundrum.)

So, children are taught that being good is rewarding, and the corollaries, that not being good will lead to loss of love and admiration, and to punishment. Once the primitive conscience takes hold, there is the tendency for many of us to fall back on the idea that if we are in pain, get sick, lose someone we love, or are unjustly fired from our job, it is experienced as punishment: We could not have been as good as we should have been.

We see the effects of how we teach morality when children egocentrically blame themselves for their parents’ divorces which so distress them; I have seen see this when people get a disease, and feel they are being singled out for cruel punishment, or when the opposite occurs, when, the physician calls and says, “Guess what, that biopsy test was mislabeled. You are in the clear, no cancer.” Even nonreligious people feel not only that they just dodged a bullet, but that, “all is well,” and something akin, to “I’m a good person, and the gods, or fate, have smiled down on me.”

When our lives go well, many of us often slip into the pleasant belief, or barely articulated reverie, that we somehow deserve this, our good fortune. With it, there is often a magical background thought, which borders on a feeling, that things are all going according to plan, all is right in the world, and, of course, in us: I’m headed in the right direction now.

Self-flagellant, from ‘Kostümbuch’ (Costume Book); copy based on the costume book by Christoph Weiditz, Munich, circa 1600
Self-flagellant, from ‘Kostümbuch’ (Costume Book); copy based on the costume book by Christoph Weiditz, Munich, circa 1600Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

The problem is that these pleasant, half-articulated beliefs almost always come with the corollary beliefs: When our lives go badly, fate or the gods, are somehow punishing us, and this comeuppance is deserved. “Misfortune” is not just bad luck, it’s bad karma. And since one misfortune often begets another (pandemic triggers job loss, triggers poverty, triggers starvation, other illnesses, triggers crime, etc.) we deserve those secondary misfortunes as well. This accounts, too, for the resignation so many people feel in the face of their setbacks.

The crucial point for the flagellants, and our own times, is that the state of mind that sees our setbacks, suffering, failures, lost opportunities, as in some way deserved, and that puts us in a frame of mind to blame ourselves, also predisposes us—if we can’t tolerate the self-blame for long—to blame others.

Our setbacks are often caused for complex reasons; yes, many truly are our fault, based on bad, recent decisions, or negligence; but so many—it is overwhelming to contemplate how many—are beyond our understanding or control.

If we can’t stand that state of culpability, there is always the ever-ready possibility that we project it onto others, and then, having shifted our self-blame onto them, cancel, punish, and hate them, instead of ourselves. But depositing our moral failings in others has never solved anything. It certainly doesn’t solve something as complex as human racism and its effects (the occasion for much concern and remorse at this time). Bigotry is the tendency to project our faults onto others—and then, attack them for those faults. But to accuse others of bigotry and racism too easily can also be a form of projection of one’s own faults, and “sinfulness.”

A flagellant, who was covertly struggling with his own sinfulness and religious doubt as to whether Jesus is God could easily project those doubts onto the Jews, who, after all, openly said they did not believe a man could be a God. Then he could attack them. This shifting of one’s own religious doubts lay at the root of much anti-Semitism.

Back to the question of whether the flagellants represented some kind of mass outbreak of masochism, followed by sadism, somehow made possible because, as John Carroll states, in the Middle Ages, matters of conscience, sin, and punishment were expressed in a characteristically physical way.

Masochism, at least in our time, usually arises in people who have been traumatized in some way, and the masochistic ritual often involves a repetition, in modified form, of the original trauma. For instance, in our times, the serious sexual masochists, who use metal to cut, and pierce themselves in sex, often have had terrifying encounters, as children, in hospitals, undergoing serial surgeries, or other unpleasant procedures where they were tied down, isolated, separated from family, as I described in The Brain That Changes Itself. Insofar as the Middle Ages dealt with moral matters physically, we might review sources on the child rearing of that time and the kind of physical punishments used in extreme situations, and wonder if these were repeated in the cult in some way. People do not, in the normal course of events, even in the Middle Ages, torture themselves with whips terminating in metal hooks. It is an acquired taste, as it were. The taste for blood, in animals, we are told, creates an appetite. In human beings, it does as well. People can become bloodthirsty.

As common as these self-mortification rituals were, it should be remembered that even in the Middle Ages, flagellation was an invention, and when the plague receded, the movement subsided in significant part.

Many might argue, it is, of course, a value judgment to liken this phenomenon to “a perversion.” The ancients, not always judgmental and wise to how opinion could color perception and feeling, loved to say, De gustibus non est disputandum, “Of taste there is no disputing (or accounting for),” i.e., it is unwise to judge, and look down on others for their unusual (to us) taste preferences, for they are a wholly subjective matter—i.e., different strokes for different folks. But when the stroke has a metal hook attached, and the taste for punishing or denouncing oneself becomes a holy appetite, and transforms itself into denouncing and punishing others for their insufficient morality, even the most nonjudgmental relativist must concede this is no longer solely an issue of subjective preference. We are not in a morality-free zone. Perhaps the flagellants justified turning on others by the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” to which I would say touché: The genius of sadomasochism is that almost any tool can be recruited for its purpose of extracting pain from that which might normally give pleasure, safety, satisfaction.

In some people who become very practiced at the search for sin within, the searching tendency easily leaps the bounds of the self, becoming particularly good at condemning those who are close at hand. This happens in all revolutionary movements: Among the early victims are those heretics in one’s own party found to be “counterrevolutionary reactionaries.” The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein and her followers showed this tendency to blame others was perhaps the most common way in which we, in early childhood, or when stressed, evade our own guilt. Of course the Bible knew this to be a perpetual temptation, to be resisted: He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

Freud also showed that, in the sexual realm—where there is intimate contact between partners—masochism and sadism travel closely together, because unconsciously the masochist identifies with his or her sadist, and the sadist with his or her masochist, during the sexual act. Hence the apt compound term, “sadomasochism.” One might speculate upon whether there was something quasi sexual, and perhaps even “orgiastic” in the violence of the flagellation, and its release of floods worth of blood. Satisfying, perhaps, but not so satisfying, that it didn’t turn to also murdering Jewish children, women, and men, en masse. Were the flagellants excited by the shrieks of other people as they were burned alive? We do not know. But arson is exciting to the arsonist in our time, and murder to the serial killer.

I find myself wondering if the term “epidemics of remorse,” unforgettable as it is, is actually the most apt one for the phenomenon, because I wonder if searching one’s soul, and achieving remorse, can ever truly be accomplished while in a group.

In fact, what those flagellants seem to describe was not guilt or remorse precisely, but something the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Rado called “guilty fear.” He argued that conscience develops in stages, and “guilty fear” begins in one of the early stages, when there is an awareness that certain behaviors will be punished by the parents or those in their stead. After an infraction, there is a period of “agonizing suspense” preceding the “inescapable punishment” and dreadful fear of losing the parents’ love.

The child’s anger at having his will blocked is dealt with by a “venting of retroflexed rage upon the self.” In other words, the child discharges the rage he feels at not being able to do what he wanted, on himself, in a desperate attempt to keep the parents (or, perhaps God’s) love. If the original infraction also involved aggression (e.g., he wanted to hit his little sister) he can turn that anger on himself as well, and angrily denounce himself as bad, and mentally “beat up on himself.”

Guilty fear exists in a human being who is aware that he or she has developed a conscience, and has crossed it (hence the guilt) and is now awaiting the consequences like a criminal awaiting sentence by a judge. Guilty fear, unlike fear, which triggers the wish to escape, knows there is no escape from the all-seeing parent or God. It is filled with dreadful anticipation. In this, it is forward looking.

But there is a second stage of guilt that tends to come later: remorse. It looks backward, with regret. We feel remorse when we accept we have hurt another. If guilty fear is focused mostly on what will happen to us, remorse is about what is wrong with us, that we could have hurt someone who is good. It is the product of our concern for another person. Insofar as it looks forward at all it is to how we might repair, or at least mitigate, the harm we’ve done.

The millenarians lived their lives in the agonizing suspense of guilty fear, waiting to see how the plague, and indeed, the world, would end. Fearing the future so, they turned to something that was not so much remorse, or guilt, but something that often passes for it: self-punishment.

One of the most difficult psychological concepts to grasp is that self-punishment is not necessarily a sign that the person punishing himself has felt remorse or processed his guilt. Rather, self-punishment—particularly the theatrical kind we are speaking of—is one of the commonest ways people have of avoiding feeling, processing, and working through their guilt. Disturbed patients who burn, cut, and debase themselves ritualistically will often tell their therapists they don’t quite know why they are doing it, other than it feels strangely good to see the blood flow, or that somehow the physical pain helps distract them from, or shut off, their mental pain. When the ritual is unpacked, one often learns the self-destructive act is an evasion of having a clear, conscious experience of some murderous or hostile wish they feel toward another person, and an evasion of the guilt that would go with the clear apprehension of that wish.

This is worth remembering, because the last thing a person who has just experienced true remorse and guilt is likely to do is begin an energetic campaign to persecute others and make them feel or confess their “remorse.” The obsession with the faults of others, the need to punish, or purify others is often one of the strongest indicators that the purifier has failed in the work on his own soul. To claim that one can bring about remorse among many, in a large group, as part of a spectacle, is another.

It is, in fact, a very great challenge to search one’s soul reliably in a group setting, especially one where the people present are all told they are guilty of the same sin, and expected to utter the same confessions, simultaneously. Nothing could be further from true remorse than that apology which is expressed under threat, as happened in the Maoist “Struggle Sessions” or as is happening now, in the current so-called “sensitivity and awareness” training sessions in universities, schools, and many companies. We are now in an “apology-on-demand culture,” and what it produces is performance morality. Everybody knows these apologies are inauthentic, and so they are immediately discounted by those who demanded them.

The fact that very different people begin to read from the almost identical script in their apologies is all we need to know to be certain that is not contrition, but, rather, placation that we are witnessing. It is the Hail Mary virtue-signaling of someone who’s been cornered.

Placation can be done in an instant. True remorse requires the hard, slow work of searching one’s conscience. Since most transgressions are rationalized, it involves sorting through self-deception, which takes time, and is a skill, often built up over a lifetime. It is not only a private act, it is one of the most private, and lonely, nonperformative acts a human being can undertake.

It must be done in private because so many of our “sins”—where we insult, derogate, demean, even kill—occur precisely because we seek to impress others. We need to get some distance from our own group’s pressure for conformity, for loyalty, and its threat of ostracization. The group’s noisy demands too easily override the still small voice—which is how the conscience speaks to us in its most mature form. It doesn’t scream. It helps one reason through our moral conflict. We need to be certain, when we say, “I have searched my conscience,” that it is our own, and not the conscience of others, that we have searched.

So we step back. Perhaps, in the theater of our minds, we can never totally get away from imagining others overhearing us when we speak and them applauding or booing. It is not easy, even in the theater of the mind, to get away from our tendency to play to our favorite group and their preferences. But, speaking for myself, only once I have at least attempted to put what others think aside, even if briefly, can I have a chance of confirming to myself that it is my soul that is doing the searching, and only then can I begin to sort out if the wrongdoings actually apply, and how. Only then can I begin asking, “Is what I have done wrong or right, and what do I, myself, really think, and feel, and want to do about it?”

Norman Doidge, a contributing writer for Tablet, is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and author of The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing.

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