Guilt as a helpful emotion

Last weekend, Anchorage neighbors gathered together to bring attention not only to the death of George Floyd, but also to countless other injustices toward black, brown, and Alaska Native people. As a white and brown man, the death of George Floyd brings up emotions of sadness, anger and uncertainty. What can one do? Since the answer is not always clear, silence can become the default.

In these difficult moments, I find guilt to be a helpful ally. Guilt is our conscience telling us that there is something wrong. It is the emotion that arises when we feel that “I did something bad.” During these times, doing something bad is doing nothing. We know that silence in the face of injustice is complacency. Turning away when brown, black and Alaska Native neighbors are dying is the opposite of courage. Staying silent is what white neighbors can no longer do.

Guilt may seem like an odd partner. Many of us are taught not to feel guilty. But these problems are our problems. We have a responsibility to change the conditions that have led to the abuse and abduction of Indigenous women, the disproportional COVID-19 infection rate among minority communities, and the wrongful deaths of black men. We take pride in our systems and organizations when they benefit us. But when something goes wrong, we are quick to distance ourselves and blame others.

Guilt supports us to move into congruency with our values. It is the emotion that shapes our goodness and generosity. If I turn my back on injustice, guilt becomes my alarm. When we feel the discomfort that accompanies guilt, we know that we are not aligned with our principles. Paying attention to the gap between our values and our actions can call us to show up in new and powerful ways.

If you refuse to stay silent, here are some ways to start. I invite you first to listen. The stories of black, brown and Alaska Native communities have long been ignored. Ask a neighbor to share both their struggles and strengths. You don’t need to say anything, just listen and bear witness to their experience. Next, I invite you to show up. Follow in the footsteps of First Alaskans Institute and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, which stood in solidarity at the Anchorage rally. Come alongside your neighbors with empathy and compassion. Most importantly, I invite you to stand up by using your power, resources and privilege to amplify these issues. Dare to make yourself uncomfortable.

It is not the speaking out or standing up that is difficult to do. Once we are rooted in our values, we can do anything. What stands in our way is the long walk from our individual lives to the shared lives of our community. As concerned Alaskans, I invite all neighbors to step into this shared and uneasy struggle.

Tonio Nguyen is a biracial Italian-American / Vietnamese-American who lives in Anchorage. He is a chaplain and educator who works in rural Alaska.

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