At This Point, I Excuse You
Guilt’s ultimate destination is often tragedy. In Ibsen’s The Master Builder, for example, the main character, Halvard Solness, cannot forgive himself for allowing his family house to burn down in the middle of winter. The cold his wife endures due to lack of shelter makes her sick and her milk, in turn, infects their twin infant sons who expire soon thereafter. Halvard cannot forgive himself because he feels like a crack in the flue that he never got around to fixing is what caused the fire. This guilt estranges him from his wife and, some time later, guides him into the affections of a younger woman, Hilda Wangel, who convinces him to overcome his acrophobia by climbing to the top of a towering steeple he has built where, with an exquisite sense of Scandinavian morosity and irony, he completes the play with an unintentional and terminal swan dive onto the unforgiving street below.
Natasha is climbing Halvard’s steeple right now. At the opening of today’s chapter her mood hasn’t much changed. She’s crying a lot. Mostly tears of remorse. “Something,” we’re told, “stood sentinel within her and forbade her every joy.” This something is undoubtedly guilt for having betrayed Prince Andrei and having behaved so improperly.
Things start to get better for her, however, when a friend from the country, Agrafena Ivanovna Belova, arrives in Moscow and suggests that Natasha join her in a fast in preparation for Holy Communion. Natasha, dismissing the doctor’s advice, decides to join Agrafena Belova at church every single day. She commits wholeheartedly to this spiritual regimen, not missing a single Vespers, Matins, or Mass. It seems to work: “Natasha experienced a feeling new to her, a sense of the possibility of correcting her faults, the possibility of a new, clean life, and of happiness.”
This is an important moment for Natasha or anyone else, really, struggling with guilt and personal failure. The idea is that one must learn from one’s mistakes by first examining their behavior critically. Then, once the problem is identified, one must engage in self-forgiveness with an honest eye towards behaving better next time.
Think of the quality of sleep that follows the self-examination! How calm, deep, and unimpeded it must be, when the mind has been praised and admonished, and — its own watchman and censor — has taken secret inventory of its own habits.
I use this opportunity, daily pleading my case at my own court. When the lights are turned out and my wife has become silent (she’s aware of my habit), I examine my entire day, going through what I have done and said. I keep nothing hidden from myself. I do not pass over anything. I have nothing to fear from my mistakes when I can say:
“Make sure you don’t do this anymore. At this point, I excuse you.”
Seneca, On Anger