About a week ago, people in Savannah, Georgia, where I live, were panicking. Two years in a row we have had hurricanes hit in our area after decades of watching others deal with the effects of these deadly storms. Before Hurricane Matthew in 2016, there was almost a universal belief that something about the Savannah coastline prevented hurricanes from hitting here. Despite the annual scientific rebuttal of that theory when hurricane season would begin, we all felt a little betrayed when Matthew proved our folk tales wrong.
When Hurricane Florence was first forming in the Atlantic, there were maps that showed the possibility of a direct hit on Savannah. Two weeks ago, people were loading up their shopping carts with water.
Last Sunday my husband, who follows these things more closely that I do, was advising people that it looked like the storm had turned north and Savannah would not be deeply affected. “Well, we still could be,” was the dubious response of the fearful.
Now it appears he was correct. The storm has turned slightly to the north and our neighbors in the Carolinas are in grave danger. Many have evacuated, some south to Savannah, which is an irony for those of us who went the other way over the past two years.
In fact, many of the people leaving North and South Carolina remind us that while Matthew was quite weak by the time it reached their communities, the drenching rains and storm surge caused more flooding there than in Savannah. I can remember our communities collecting unused bottled water to send north while we were still removing thousands of downed trees in our neighborhoods.
These storms are serious, made more serious by rising sea levels along the coast. While we don’t expect the massive damage that our Carolina brothers and sisters are forecasting, we will still probably have families to help whose low-lying homes are flooded by the tides and rains in Savannah.
After taking a week off from blogging last week to catch up on “real work” and recover from long travels, I had a whole list of blog ideas from time in Germany and later at Dragon Con in Atlanta. But those will wait, as my prayers this week cannot escape a nagging feeling of guilt around this storm.
I didn’t do anything wrong; I don’t control the weather. But as I recall my husband and I looking at all we have to do these next couple of weeks and saying, “Please don’t let Florence hit here,” I am very aware that our prayers were answered. But as the storm turned north, away from us, others’ prayers for relief had only just begun.
How do we deal spiritually with guilt for things over which we have no control? We can ignore our guilty feelings. They are not rational. We don’t deserve to have them because of something we did or didn’t do. That would be the advice of many people concerned about our emotional well-being. They might not even allow us to call it guilt, since Merriam-Webster’s first definition of guilt is “the fact of having committed a breach of conduct.” If there is no fact of having done anything, there can be no guilt.
But I propose that definition may be a little too specific to be useful in our spiritual explorations. Whether or not guilt is the appropriate word, I am feeling something that niggles my conscience. If rather than trying to reason it away, I meditate more deeply on that feeling, I may have some insight that draws me closer to what the Divine wants for my life.
For example, my husband and I were very clear when we were hoping (praying?) for the storm to go elsewhere, that unless it just disappeared over the ocean it would affect other people. This rightfully troubled us. One person I spoke with in Savannah was very clear that while she felt bad that others would be affected, her main relief came in being glad it was them and not her.
While I can’t do anything to redirect the storm, I know that God is calling me to a different kind of compassion that is not glad it is them. That niggle of guilt is calling me to be in deeper prayers of compassion. Maybe the person I spoke with who is just glad it is not her, is called to deeper prayers of thanksgiving? Or maybe my tiny role in all of this is to call all of us, including her, to a place of deeper compassion and concern for others.
I say this because the other sense that keeps rising up in my prayers over this guilty feeling is a conviction that my real guilt will come after the storm if I do nothing to help those who are affected. My husband and I prayed for the storm to go elsewhere so that our well-laid plans might not be interrupted by yet another evacuation. But if there is anything that I can do once the storm is passed that I refrain from doing in order to keep my plans, then perhaps guilt will be the appropriate response.
Being mindful now of the compassion that the Divine Presence is calling me to in the future might help me avoid that mistake. Far too often the appropriate guilt I feel is from things I fail to do, rather than the things I do.
I am reminded here of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. If you don’t know that story, he prayed before his crucifixion that his Father (God) might take away his cup of suffering. But he ended that prayer with “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
I don’t want anyone to suffer because of Hurricane Florence, or wildfires in California, or flooding in the Midwest, or earthquakes around the world. I don’t want anyone to suffer at all. But if I cannot stop the suffering, and I cannot, I pray that I will not ignore the dis-ease of my spirit and will find ways to do what I can. I hope we all will find the ways we can help.
Do you ever feel guilty even though you know you didn’t do anything wrong? What happens when you pray or meditate into that feeling rather than trying to explain it away? Are there other feelings that seem negative and unhelpful, with which you might try this approach? Are there some feelings that are just too painful or contribute to self-loathing, for which it might be better to just acknowledge them, but send them away? Have you been successful in not just suppressing, but relinquishing feelings so they do not reemerge later in harmful ways?
I am lucky that this niggling feeling of guilt is small and will be helpful on my spiritual journey without causing too much pain. Sometimes we carry more pain than one person can bear. Perhaps a spiritual director, walking with you on a path to healing, can help. If you would like to know more about spiritual direction, contact me at Openings: Let the Spirit In.