It’s something you hear in this season, when so many have to face that they are not going to fulfill that well-meant New Year’s Resolution.
Is that your conscience, or do you just feel guilty?
Conscience is something bigger, the sense of Right and Wrong. It seems to be innate, but flexible to nurture. Admittedly, some people appear not to have one, or have resisted it long enough that it doesn’t impinge on their actions.
When I was a kid watching the (original) Mickey Mouse Club, Jiminy Cricket had a song, moralistic as much of Disney was, about conscience:
“Take the straight and narrow path
And if you start to slide,
Give a little whistle…Give a little whistle…
And always let your conscience be your guide.”
When I was about 5, my mother took me grocery shopping to Martini’s Market. (I always assumed my parents liked it for the name, but the fact was, it was convenient.) While my mother talked to Mr. Martini, I swiped a pack of gum from the display. I did it with my back turned to Martini, and held it while I wandered around the store before I casually stuck it in my pocket. Gum chewing, except the occasional bubble gum, was verboten in our household. Sure enough my mother caught me chewing a piece the next day, I had forgotten to hide it. She plied the truth out of me, hauled me back to the market and had me tell the whole story to Mr. Martini and pay him the 5 cent cost from what I’d saved from my allowance.
Not stealing was part of my upbringing, I have no idea whether just taking whatever you want is the default here. I had an attack of conscience when I was taking the gum. I did it sneakily, I knew it was wrong, the adrenaline coursed through my young body, I flushed. Once I’d apparently got away with it, I was able to still that little voice. I felt guilty once I was caught. Was my conscience actually my learned values from my parents?
“Conscience is a man's compass.” ---Vincent Van Gogh
Or was its voice made clearer to me by such an incident, with my parents showing me the practical way to avoid conflict with my conscience by not doing what I knew was “wrong”.
As adults we don’t often have a conversation about conscience, we talk about principles and interests and values and lifestyles, and seldom refer to that word.
“Every human has four endowments - self awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom... The power to choose, to respond, to change.” ---Stephen Covey
Not discussing it doesn’t mean it goes away.
It shows up in different forms.
For example, there are two books called The Conscience of a Conservative, expounding values of Right and Wrong from the authors’ political point of view.
Would you likely list at least some differences with the writers’ positions?
If you and the writer are both basing your decisions on your consciences and you come up with different answers, what does that say about the conscience?
In churches especially we are enjoined to “examine our consciences”. Have you done that lately? It’s an interesting experience, rewarding for those who are choosing a more spiritual path because it’s certainly not limited to this world, although that’s where it’s currently living. I would say it’s grounded somewhere outside this world. That exploration was overdue for me at one point in my life.
For a year I was a telemarketer. Selling worthless dreams. “Yes, and when you win all that money, Myrtle, what are you going to do with it?” “I’m gonna ride down the middle of Main Street in a bright red Cadillac convertible…” Myrtle was a sale, about to give me $1000. on her credit card, of which I got to keep a bunch. I did well at it, very well. Then, a year after I started I looked myself in the mirror one morning and said, “I just can’t do this anymore.” My conscience by then was not a small voice but a scream. I didn’t care about my income. I was successful and acting against self-interest, but I knew in my soul it was time to take another path.
“Guilt upon the conscience, like rust upon iron, both defiles and consumes it, gnawing and creeping into it, as that does which at last eats out the very heart and substance of the metal.” ---Robert South
In the end, it seems to me, we arrive at Integrity, and in an overweening sense our conscience is our guide to that state. We work to balance the Spirit in us and the Human at the same time (Panache Desai has recently written that we are 200 percent alive: 100 percent human, 100 percent Divine). Conscience is indeed a guide we can access, clearly, and need to focus on. Sometimes we have to say, “I can’t, in good conscience, do that…”
“Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.” ― C.G. Jung
What happens when we can separate the guilt from the conscience? Isn’t its voice clearer, doesn’t it guide you like a GPS towards what is Right for you and what is not?
And what about those Alternative Answers? Are there many Rights and Wrongs?
Well, as Covey notes above, discovering Your Answers is one of the challenges of being alive.
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