The Voice of Conscience in Character

by Jack McLean

Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1998)

Conscience, that function of the human mind and character that once defined boundaries and propriety, has today proven to be conspicuously defective. Mainstream media reports, entertainment journalism and trash TV saturate the viewer/reader daily with deplorable accounts of people who hurt people and then just walk away. If a crime has been committed, the perpetrator may brought to justice. Just as often he is not. But lives are changed forever.

Historically, we have witnessed the reverse phenomenon in the behaviour patterns of the institutionalised religions. Leaders of religion once knowingly played upon the guilty conscience of relatively innocent folk in order to maintain priestly power and control. We have, however, come a long way from this history into today’s chaotic, free-for-all moral market mentality.
Since the 1960’s, when we slid ever more frenetically into the deceptively alluring lifestyles of the permissive society, social controls and moral restraints have been carelessly jettisoned in the desperate search for personal freedom and self-satisfaction.

It is now considered passé or politically incorrect to even raise certain moral issues. Moral definitions that once held firm a generation ago are today hopelessly confused. Those questions that are still actively debated and contested have become bitterly polarised. The current social climate affecting the rest of society seems to be — let the people do exactly what they want. After all, as long as nobody gets hurt ….

Are we pausing long enough to consider whether there might be some cause-effect relationship between defective conscience and morality (‘the lack of virtue) and the incidence of increasingly dysfunctional behaviour whether as criminality, social pathology, depression, aimlessness, emptiness, meaninglessness, the alarming rates of teen suicide, widespread mental illness, homelessness and just plain mean and nasty behaviour in ordinary people? Recent studies indicate that divorce still has deleterious effects on the very young but it now seems to have been accepted as our unavoidable fate.

Short of mental pathology and criminal behaviour, too little conscience is a sign that we are dealing with an insensitive, immature or callous individual. In spiritual terms, an irresponsible or defective conscience indicates a clear lack of understanding and appreciation of the sacred dimensions of the world (and all that’s in it) and being blind to the reality of soulfulness as the distinguishing feature and special identity of the human being. Perhaps we would hesitate to willingly hurt, cheat or destroy another like ourselves in whom we perceived the reflection of something beautifully divine.

Being overly conscientious or scrupulous lies at the other extreme. Although genuine remorse has often proven effective in changing behaviour, wallowing too long in guilt can be just a subtle form of self-absorption. The full-blown guilt trip amounts to self-centeredness when it vainly tries to pass itself off as piety. Talking one’s way out of guilt may aspire to forgiveness but it is not and does not approximate the real thing.

This leads us to conscience and forgiveness. The renowned Swiss psychotherapist, Carl Jung, once wrote that most of the patients he treated in midlife suffered from one of two issues: (1) fear of death (2) lack of forgiveness (either of self or other). In situations of emotional trauma, often the only way to restore peace is through forgiveness. In some cases the law courts may help but the issue lies deeper.

It may be easy to write about forgiveness. It is, however, much more difficult to achieve, especially in cases of serious wrongdoing or breaches of trust. But however difficult it may be to achieve when we have been seriously wronged (or seriously wronged ourselves, or wronged another), forgiveness is, as Shakespeare’s Romeo said in another context, a “consummation devoutly to be wished.” For forgiveness is often the only thing that will bring a painful situation to rest. Can we ever speak entirely of closure?

Real forgiveness does not cause us to forget the offence but removes the sting and helps restore our state of mind to that place of at-one-ment (atonement) in which we feel right with the Creator, with ourselves, with others and the world, whatever has been lost. Forgiveness is not just a matter of expiating wrong-doing, sin or error by sheer dumb suffering because we have violated a divine precept, or been violated. It is also a matter of insight.

Put differently, we need to discover how and why we or others have acted in a manner unworthy and unbecoming of our (their) own intrinsic spiritual nature. Forgiveness enables us to envision new spiritual horizons and future possibilities that were not there before. In short, it restores hope.

Lastly, if conscience is not, as Shakespeare said “to make cowards of us all”, then we all will do well to remain alert to that still small voice that is always prompting from within and really begin to listen and to act upon its guidance.

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