From hoarding to triage: the difficult handling of guilt

Dealing with questions of existential guilt shapes the practice of logotherapy and existential analysis: A young man seeks help because he killed another person in a traffic accident. The fact that the court has legally acquitted him of any guilt on the one hand does not change the fact that he was involved in the death of a human being in some way, and on the other hand it does not change the deeply felt existential guilt associated with it. A young MP is struggling with herself because she voted in the Bundestag for arms deliveries to the Kurds in northern Iraq – and subsequently has to watch how these weapons are used by some of the fighters not for self‐​defence but for deadly settlements with other groups. A working mother of two teenagers develops feelings of guilt because she does not live up to her own and the supposed demands of those around her (family, partner, job, neighbours, etc.).

Guilt here is not merely a moral‐​ethical theoretical category, for example in law, where it is largely clarified what a society sanctions in order to protect itself and the individual. Guilt can also be understood in a fundamentally existential way: Even with good intentions and a prudent way of life, with adherence to all norms and rules, we can become guilty towards other people, as the example of the desperate young man shows. But there is also ourselves. And just as we can become guilty towards others, we can become guilty towards ourselves.

Part of the conception of man in logotherapy and existential analysis is to see the human being not as the result of inner‐​psychic processes or environmental influences, but as a being who can shape himself in what matters in life. Here his responsibility plays a special role: the freedom we have also implies that we have responsibility for our lives. In the way we live, how and for what we decide, we answer the questions that life asks us (»responsibility« – to which life questions do we give an answer?). This is also where values come into play that are important to us, that we orient ourselves by and that help us cope with life. Personal responsibility consists of recognising a central life task in seeing our possibilities and shaping this life according to our convictions, reflections and decisions. The founder of logotherapy, Viktor E. Frankl, comments on this »culpability«: »If you take away man’s culpability (by means of psychological explanations), you also take away his dignity.« – »Dignity« – guilt is thus for Frankl also a central expression of the essence, the being of the human being. It belongs to us, quite existentially, and we have the task of dealing with it. In very different contexts.