Guilt, shame, remorse: How do we go on when we do wrong things?

When I was in 8th grade, I went to pass a ball in a co-ed PE soccer game. I charged and kicked hard at the ball with my right leg. I don’t know if my foot reached the ball but it connected with the limb of a boy on the opposing team. Down he went, screaming and rolling over in pain. The P.E. teachers saw that something very bad had happened and called the paramedics. 

That PE class was on a Friday morning. I spent the rest of the day at school hearing people say, “Did you hear what happened to Chris?” And, they  talked about “how Martha … ” and they looked at me and pointed, whispered and laughed.  I tried to ignore it, even as I imagined them thinking I was a stupid, clumsy, a bitch. Chris wasn’t super popular but he was liked by enough people. But then there were the boys who thought Chris was a jerk and called out in the hall: “Way to go Ross.” 

No word came throughout Friday on how Chris was doing or the nature of his injury. I went home that afternoon imagining all sorts of terrible possibilities: from a broken leg to amputation to paralysis. Yeah, my imagination was working overtime, conjuring up all the scenarios tat would confirm that I was a terrible person.

It was the first time in my life that I experienced deep shame and guilt: the kind that locks your mind and body in a state of constant rumination, fear and immobility.  My stomach was in knots, and I couldn’t get my mind off the “What ifs … ” and the “If onlys.”

That weekend forever instilled in me a fear of doing things or hurting other people.  Injuring Chris gave me a first serious bout of a guilty conscience. Sure it was a mistake, an accident, and I shouldn’t have been so hard on my self, but the incident was so public, and I felt so stupid.

This isn’t to say that I never in my life again ever did wrong hurtful tings to people. \ Indeed I have.  In some cases,  I have been able to rationalize my actions to minimize my own pain. Other times, I have had to suck it up and accept that I’m going to have to live with a few days of feeling rotten and worthless.

Ever my guilt-ridden weekend over Chris, I have become fascinated with stories of real  people and fictional characters who do much more terrible things–usually crimes–that essentially destroy their lives and cause serious harm to the people around them.  The transgressors who interest me are who who appear to have a conscience and feel remorse over the damage they have caused.

They would know guilt, shame and remorse on an incomprehensible scale. Given the remorse, I can’t imagine how someone could possibly go on with life after having done something so much worse. 
 As a young reporter, I had to write a followup story on a 10-year-old boy in  Dublin who  died when his father, allegedly idrunk, lost control of their pickup truck. The father walked away from the rollover crash that killed his son. I called the family’s house, and the father answered; I guess he had posted bail. 

I tried to do the usual thing reporters do when writing a news obituary. I asked  the father about his son,  what his interests were, and so on. The father’s voice was sad but he answered dutifully, perhaps understanding that I wasn’t just being nosy but was attempting to write a nice tribute to his son. “He was a good boy,” the father said. 

And then I bulldozed my way in, in true cable TV host style, and asked the father how he was feeling.

There was a pause and then the father’s voice, cracking, searching for words, said something like “Oh, I don’t know, pretty terrible. I loved my son.” 

The man’s words did not do justice to the depth of agony I heard in his voice.  There was a profound sorrow and guilt I  couldn’t begin to comprehend. If I were to believe in hell everlasting, I would say that this father was in it. How could he go on living, I wondered. What on earth would keep him going?

I bring all this up because I just read the story in the December issue of Diablo magazine about Norm Wielsch, the commander of the state-run Central Contra Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Team (CNET), who has been charged in a widespread federal case involving sales and distribution of methamphetamine, marijuana, steroids, and prescription pills. 

The story, written by my former colleague Peter Crooks, asks what anyone “with even a passing interest in the case would ask: Why would a career cop with a stack of accolades for his police work and a high-paying, prestigious position in narcotics enforcement pull off some marginally profitable drug crimes and, in so doing, risk absolutely everything?” 

The story goes on to describe, in Wielsch’s words, his years-long descent into depression, stress and suicidal thinking related to police work, a daughter’s life-threatening health issues, and his own struggles with a degenerative, painful and potentially career-ending neurological condition.  Wielsch’s alleged partner in crime was the enigmatic and scamming Concord private investigator Chris Butler, the star of so many TV features about him and his beautiful, female assistants — his “P.I. Moms.” As Wielsch tells it, Butler brought Wielsch into a world full of glamor, possibilities and the excitement of bending rules. 

In the article, Wielsch expresses remorse. As Crooks points out to Wielsch in their interview, some would say that Wielsch is sorry just because he got caught. 

Sure, there is probably some of that sucking up in Wielsch’s apology, a hope the judge won’t go so hard on him when it comes to sentencing, but I also believe that his remorse is genuine.

Wielsch’s apology reads, according to Diablo: “I want to sincerely apologize to: All past and current CNET agents and commanders. All agencies participating in CNET. The California Department of Justice. All law enforcement officers. All citizens that trusted me with my position. I violated their trust. I’m sorry.” Later in the article, it explains that when Wielsch ” thinks about the arrogant and dirty cop he had become at the end of his law enforcement days, he ‘wants to throw up.’ ”

The apology and Wielsch’s queasy stomach are just glimpses of what he might feel day by day, even moment by moment. He’s facing more than 25 years in prison, which means he’ll probably be leaving behind home and family. With all the legal bills, he’s probably ruined himself and his family financially. Everything he worked for all his life is gone. 

Like the father who killed his son, Norm Wielsch is, I imagine, in a kind of hell. Guilt over pain you cause yourself and other people is pretty hellish. 

I can’t argue with those who believe that the drunk father who killed his son and Norm Wielsch deserve to be in hell. Chris Butler gave a statement to investigators in which he described Wielsch as “a wicked, frightening criminal and a relentlessly dirty cop.”

That view of Wielsch may have some truth to it. 

Still, I’m sympathetic. I attended one of Wielsch and Butler’s court hearings, and Wielsch looked broken, demoralized. I remember the grieving father’s voice on the phone. He, too, sounded broken. He son had just been dead a few days; his torment was just beginning.

Personally, I don’t get much satisfaction seeing people in pain, even a supposedly dirty cop or a father who did something incredibly selfish and student that wound up killing his child.

Because of their transgressions, Wielsch and that father have been condemned to forever live at a certain edge of human experience. I can’t help but wonder about people who live at that edge. I wonder how and why they endure.

I recently came across a review of a documentary called “Serving Life,” about Louisiana prison inmates serving life terms for murder and who work with dying patients in the Angola State Prison’s hospice. The reviewer, Erik Mink, writes that at the core of every horrific crime “lie questions that transcend the particulars: Are people fundamentally good or fundamentally evil?”

Mink says the documentary, which aired on the OWN cable and satellite network, “holds out hope that humanity may be defined by something pure and bright within us. And it finds hope in the most improbable of settings.” The setting to which Mink refers is the Angola State Prison hospice, where the inmate volunteers, all hardened criminals, find they have the capacity to help others and show tenderness and caring attention.

Maybe it’s that pure thing,”bright within us,” that keeps us going after we transgress and are struck by guilt, shame and remorse.

After my transgression on the PE soccer field, I returned to school the following Monday, wanting to find out what happened to Cris. Rounding a hall, I almost walked right into him. He was on crutches and his left leg was in a cast.  He was with some buddies and girls, an entourage, really, of students wanting to be around the kid who last Friday got driven away in an ambulance.

“Oh, Chris!” I babbled. “How are you? I am so, so sorry.” I kept on saying, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.

He gave me this insolent smirk. He had dirty blond hair with streaks of red, freckles and teeth filled with braces. He was in no mood to accept my apology. Father in an arrogant, sarcastic way, he said: “Yeah, you’re sorry. My knee is broken and I’ll be on crutches for six weeks.”

He continued to talk about how much his knee hurt, and how stupid I was to kick him.

He wanted to make me feel like crap, and I did for the remaining moments I stood there listening to him complain. Then I walked away and felt better. He was a jerk. I had suffered all weekend over my perceived damage to his life. I came back to school and made a pubic apology. He wanted to rub in it, and I had judged that I had paid my price, made my amends.

So I got over that guilt trip over Chris. I guess that’s another important lesson to learn, to know for yourself when enough is enough. I was able to forgive myself about Chris and move on.

But there are other things I’ve done over the course of my life for which I have not forgiven myself.. No, I haven’t done anything criminal but there are people I’ve hurt or things I’ve done that are acts of arrogance and self-centeredness. For those things I still haven’t been able to say, enough is enough.

And,  I continue wonder about those, like Wielsch or the drunken father, whose transgressions were devastating, public and irreversible. Their penance is lifelong and they may never be able to say, enough is enough. 

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