Robin Williams

A question for comics, counselors and clerics: Where does guilt come from?

A question for comics, counselors and clerics: Where does guilt come from?

WINNIE’S QUESTION:

Where does guilt come from?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This topic was referred to The Guy after it emerged during discussions at a monthly lunch group consisting of a liberal Catholic, a liberal Protestant, a Unitarian and an evangelical.

Guilt interwoven with religion is a continual theme for humor. The late entertainer Robin Williams, for instance, used to say he was an Episcopalian because it’s “Catholic light. All the pageantry, half the guilt.” Jews themselves continually joke about Jewish guilt.

In 21st Century America, guilt ain’t what it used to be -- on the surface. It is often portrayed as a needless, even damaging, burden. Or consider a memorable moment at a 2015 “pro-family” rally in Iowa. Presidential candidate Donald Trump said, quite candidly, “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness.” No guilt-ridden soul there.

Both high and low culture promote moral relativism by which age-old rules that were officially upheld  if sometimes violated are now eradicated. And yet socio-cultural liberals who cherish such freedom will readily turn absolutist against, say, guns or global warming or #MeToo misconduct. Polls continue to show high opprobrium against adultery. Think of the careers recently wrecked by sexual sin in these supposedly unbuttoned times.

Is guilt disappearing as religion is moved from the center of cultural influence in the West? Quite the opposite, contends University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred M. McClay. His 2017 Hedgehog Review essay “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” said intellectuals expected guilt to fade with secularization but instead it “has grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element” of life. We cannot “banish guilt merely by denying its reality,” he wrote. Secularization makes matters worse because so many can no longer rely on Jewish and Christian forms of absolution that make guilt bearable.

Psychological experts indicate guilt is essential to the very definition of what it means to be human.

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Pod people: Did journalists (and clergy) take Robin Williams seriously?

Pod people: Did journalists (and clergy) take Robin Williams seriously?

I don't know about you, but I am still thinking about that soft, disturbing voice inside the haunted head of superstar Robin Williams. That's why Todd Wilken were still talking about that topic in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

As I discussed in my first post on the actor's suicide, Williams was very open -- during his entire adult life -- about the troubling nature of the voices he heard that made his improvisational genius possible, along with the voices that urged him to end it all -- either slowly, through substance abuse, or quickly, through suicide. Remember the quotes that were included in so many of the mainstream obituaries?

"You're standing at a precipice and you look down, there's a voice and it's a little quiet voice that goes, 'Jump!' " he told ABC News.

Or maybe this one:

 "The same voice that goes, 'Just one.' … And the idea of just one for someone who has no tolerance for it, that's not the possibility."

Now, one does not need to leap into religious talk-radio land, where some people oh-so-compassionately suggested that Williams was possessed by demons, to recognize that Williams was being quite candid about the presence of evil and temptation in his life. It appeared that he took that very, very seriously.

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God, angels, demons and the brilliant, troubled life of Robin Williams

God, angels, demons and the brilliant, troubled life of Robin Williams

In the end, it was all about the voices in Robin William's head, the brilliant voices, the angelic voices and what he often described as the quiet voices of his demons. Almost every mainstream media obituary for the beloved actor and comic includes some variation on this passage from the main story at The Los Angeles Times:

Over the years, the international superstar struggled with alcohol and cocaine addiction. ... Williams was a close friend of the late comic John Belushi and was with him March 5, 1982, just hours before Belushi died of an overdose at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. The pain of a friend's death helped Williams kick his own bad habits, but the cure wasn't permanent.

In 2006, he returned to rehab after two decades of sobriety.

"You're standing at a precipice and you look down, there's a voice and it's a little quiet voice that goes, 'Jump!' " he told ABC News.

Sometimes the voices told him to do things that, as an addict, he knew were completely irrational. He didn't mind telling people that he knew what it was like to wrestle with demons inside his own head. That voice on the precipice? 

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