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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

On Feeling Guilty for No Reason

Guilt – that suffocating emotion in which anticipation and fear mix with shame and regret – is never pleasant, but we can – in most cases – count on one small blessing: at least we know what we feel guilty about. It’s about the message we sent, the argument we started, the call we haven’t returned, the anger we let loose…

But there are other occasions, more unusual yet far more unpleasant in nature, when we find ourselves unable to think of anything we might be responsible for – even as guilt clings tenaciously to us. We don’t have the luxury of feeling guilty about x or y, we simply feel guilty per se, a nebulous, unbudgeable and totalising sense of awfulness, which leaves us without the possibility of confession or resolution, any chance to name our sin or direct our repentance – an itch that can never be found or ever resolved.

A collection of black and white sketches by Franz Kafka, showing a man in a black suit in various contorted poses.
Franz Kafka, Sketches, c. 1901-7

The outstanding depiction of this sense of free-floating guilt lies in one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century: Franz Kafka’s The Trial. As the story opens, the central figure – Josef K – an insignificant bank clerk living a modest life in an unnamed country, is from out of the blue accused of a crime that is never defined and that he has no direct recollection of having committed – and threatened with proceedings. Some kind of torture and long prison sentence seem to await him. The situation is terrifying enough in itself, but he has an added torment to carry, the description of which lends the novel its particular genius: Josef K.’s lack of knowledge of an offence doesn’t mean he can be inwardly confident of his position, however outwardly in difficulties he might be. He doesn’t think this is a simple miscarriage of justice. He feels in his bones that he does not have a clean sheet, he senses he is not a good man, and yet he can’t for that matter remember any particular crime he might have been responsible for. He is uncomfortably suspended between ignorance and an impression of evil; both guilty and without a target for his guilt. He begins to wish that he could have done something wrong, so that he would then at least be able to find a misdeed to align with his sense of criminality. When at the end of the novel, two men sent by the court arrive to carry him away to be killed, Joseph K’s predominant emotion is relief: finally he will be accorded the punishment he always felt he deserved.

Though one can be wary of direct connections between novels and their authors’ lives, The Trial has proved so resonant in part because Kafka was describing a feeling that he knew only too well from the inside – and that readers have, in turn, recognised equally strongly from their own backgrounds.

Throughout his life, Kafka – a timid, diffident man – was haunted by a sense of being somehow ‘bad’, responsible for having caused offence by his very existence – and he traced this to his relationship with his father Hermann, a bullying successful businessman who dominated his family. From a poignant letter of complaint that Kafka wrote to Hermann as an adult, we know that the father treated his son with constant disdain: he seemed offended by his every move, he found fault with everything the boy said and did; there was nothing young Franz could ever do to please the father he admired.

We know from psychology that in such circumstances, children never blame their parents. They simply assume that there is something wrong with them and hate themselves as an alternative to developing the self-confidence to complain about the people who maltreat them.

We also know that these unfortunate children are liable to start to suffer the depredations of free-floating guilt. Their lives will be spoilt by a perpetual hazy impression of being unfit to live. They may spend hours scanning their deeds, trying to discover how they might have offended someone, broken the law or disgraced themselves, without being able to point to anything specific that could put their compulsive search to rest. 

Eventually, in a desperate bid to end their torment, some sufferers may decide to actually do something wrong, preferring to be punished for a particular crime than to be forced to wander free with an eerie and inchoate sense of being bad and under danger of imminent arraignment. Though they may have an immense amount to lose, they may steal something, visit a sex worker or blurt something out inappropriately in public. They will destroy themselves to try to align their position in the eyes of others with the punishment they think themselves worthy of from the start. Alternatively, in certain cases that may perplex even more, they will show up at a police station and insist they’ve committed and need to be punished for a crime that, it emerges, they have no connection to.

We have one advantage over the unfortunate Josef K. We have the tools of psychology to hand. These give us the option – when free-floating guilt descends – to undertake our own investigations. We can be almost sure that we have had the sort of childhood in which we were made to feel that we caused our progenitors offence from the start. Nothing we did was good enough, no smile or achievement could melt the ice or dissipate the rage. Perhaps our parents were still in mourning for a child who died before us. Maybe our gender reminded a parent of their own vulnerability from which they were in flight. Maybe they were battling repressed sexual impulses towards us which made them severe and cold. The key point is that the problem wasn’t anything we did, it’s who we were.

Because this tragic situation will apply to a good many children born every year, the world is filled with people who will read Kafka’s The Trial not as an interesting work of central European existential literature but as a covert description of their own lives.

If this is us, we can believe that we feel bad today – like every day – not because we are inherently sinful, but because we were not accorded the love that is every child’s due; our sense of guilt is free-floating because it genuinely wasn’t connected to any actions on our part. We don’t have to show up at a police station and beg to be arrested, or commit a crime to appease our impression of criminality. We can just take stock of our own histories – and turn relentless discomfort into something we can name and try to reflect on. There was a crime of sorts; a well concealed crime against the edicts of familial love, but we were not – as we can slowly start to see – ever its perpetrators. 

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