We ponder the difference between guilt and shame, along with an odd, unfortunate story of a cat.
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The Voice of the Heart: A call to Full Living by, Chip Dodd
See transcript for other resources, scriptures and notes.
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My ninety-one year old mother-in-law, affectionately known as Grandma Ruth, moved in with us this spring. She lived with my sister-in-law, Pat, until Pat passed away last fall from ALS. Pat owned a cat, who Grandma Ruth named and inherited. She called him Scotty. My husband’s name is Scott. Yes, this is just one of the strange things in this story!
We didn’t want the cat; a beautiful creature with fat patches of snow white and butterscotch fur. Pat’s daughter didn’t want the cat either and we seemed to be at a stalemate with his future. Ruth offered to put him down, but we weren’t going to let her do that! So the cat was coming despite my list of concerns and my disgruntledness.
On my grumpy list of ‘no way can we take the cat’ was our dog. We didn’t know how she would interact with him, as she was generally ferocious to any other four legged creatures. Allergies were another concern. I had guests scheduled to come in town and they were now going to have to bring their Epipens. But the one biggie on the list was dealing with the cat fur. The ‘long haired cat’ cat fur! I like cats. I’ve had cats. But I’ve never liked what came along with all the fur. So, by taking him in I was taking one for the team, and I made sure everyone knew it.
Fast forward a few months. Months of awkward cohabitation transitions of both animal and human specie. Neither time or proffered affection toward the cat helped, because I still didn’t want all that came along with him.
So imagine my surprise when one Sunday last month I came home from a lunch date with a friend to find Grandma Ruth stooped over the motionless body of the cat. He lay on his side, with his eyes (his yellow eyes) open.
I walked in, carrying my work backpack and was confused by what I saw. She hovered above him at a 90-degree angle, straining to tug his leg and tail. While she called his name over and over I said to her, “Ruth he isn’t responding. What happened?” I dropped my backpack on the kitchen counter and with dread looked over the sink at the scene from a safe distance. The cat was dead! I didn’t realize it, but I was in the initial stages of freaking out.
She said, “I heard a noise and thought Scott (the human) fell off the ladder.”
I ran to the porch and hollered for Scott, who was re-screening the porch, “Scott, come quick!”
He yelled back, “What’s the matter?”
“It’s the cat!” I nearly shrieked, giving voice to my freaking out.
“The cat?” he replied. I could tell his alarm dropped considerably. He was most likely thinking that something had happened to his mom. We met on the screened in (or almost screened in) porch, and you know how when you get nervous you can laugh inappropriately? I’m embarrassed to say I couldn’t contain the bubbly laugh that erupted as I said, “I think the cat is dead!”
Without much of an expression, Scott finds his way to the cat and shoos the dog away. “Take her,” he directs me.
I grab Bella, our 15 pound, non-shedding, Shih Tzu, and maintain a safe distance (again) by standing in the living room, peering over the couch. I clutch the dog and watch as Scott gets on the floor, strokes the cat and looks for a pulse.
Ruth, who has been standing over the cat the entire time, goes and gets water to sprinkle on his face. Even after a dousing, the yellow eyes remained open and vacant. Scott pronounces that the cat is gone.
I’m standing afar, thinking this can’t be happening! It was so sudden and shocking! Guilt creeps in as I acknowledge that all I ever did was complain about the cat. I complained about the tufts of white fur strewn all around the house and layered on the cloth couches and dining room chairs. One day I was baking and clumps were on the stove top – ick, gag, yuck! I scheduled the cleaning service to come more often to keep up with it and even took him, for the first time ever, to get brushed out at a groomer. He did not like me for that.
The cat was big, (almost 30 pounds) plus what looked like another 10 pounds of fur. He was good and kept to himself, so he wasn’t a bother, BUT HIS HAIR was getting to me and I complained about it every chance I could get. In fact, I had just finished complaining to my friend at lunch, before I walked in the door to find him dead!
I’m mortified to admit that as I was standing there repeating aloud, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this!” in a guilt-ridden stupor, a Scripture verse floated through my head: Delight yourself in The Lord and he will give you your heart’s desire. My freaking out and my guilt swelled!
The story we get out of Ruth is that she heard the dog and cat running around and then heard a loud noise. Since it wasn’t Scott falling off the ladder she got up to see what it was and found the cat. She believes the cat ran into the wall and just died. Yes, you read that right! Is that not tragically funny, or what?
We have no other explanation and our only witness is the dog. We know Bella has a history of cleaning house with other animals (that’s another blog), so in my mind she is totally suspect! But we will never know. Ruth believes they were playing, but the cat never wanted anything to do with the dog. I don’t think it was playing as much as it could have been fleeing!
I call our Vet and get their Sunday recording for the emergency Vet. Scott stuffs the nearly 30 pound cat into a cat carrier that would accommodate a 15 pound animal comfortably. (How he traveled 2 days by car from Colorado in it was amazing to me.)
While Scott is off disposing of the body Ruth and I chat, or rather, I’m still freaking out saying, “I can’t believe this!” and “Oh my gosh!” In between my incredulous hysterics our conversation turns. Initially Ruth stated matter-of-factly that things happen with animals all the time, and what are you gonna do? She said he was Pat’s cat and wouldn’t have anything to do with her until Pat died.
In the course of our chat I said, “I’m so sorry, I know he’s your last link to Pat.” My guilt pokes at me again as the woman who never cries, can barely get the following words out because she’s so choked up with emotion.
She manages to say between tears, “He was so happy here. He hasn’t been happy since he left Chicago four years ago. I’m so glad he got to experience it here.” Oh man, just torture me now! I felt as if someone had stuck a pitchfork in my chest!
I asked if Ruth was happy here too and she nodded and said yes, which was heart-warming and assuaged a bit of my emotional distress. I said, “You’re going to miss him aren’t you?” and she nodded again with new tears streaming down her cheeks. He was just sitting on her lap the day before. It was rare for him to be out during the day and she was petting him; both were quite happy and content.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I wrestled with my lack of remorse, yet would never have wanted the cat to die! He was only 8 years old and I figured we’d have him for a long time.
Our Community Group was studying a book about feelings and that week we conveniently covered the chapters of guilt and shame! As I tossed and turned I remembered that guilt comes as a result of something you ‘did’. So, I began to review my actions toward the cat.
· We chose to receive him, rather than have him put him down.
· We created space for his stuff and needs.
· We investigated and inquired about his prescription food.
· When he let me, I’d pet him and gave him affection. He was a beautiful cat.
In conclusion, I chose to operate above my feelings of inconvenience and intolerance. While I shared them via complaints to anyone who would listen, I didn’t share them with Ruth or even the cat. My heart may not have been pure, but my action toward them was. Since guilt is a response to things that you ‘do’, it dawned on me that I had never hurt the cat. My actions were above reproach and while I wish I could say my heart was too, in this case it was actions that mattered.
My heart will always have aspects of selfishness in it, and it’s that for which I’ve asked forgiveness. If I have learned anything though it’s this: you don’t have to have your heart and actions aligned in order to love. Love is truly a verb, an action that comes from a choice to sacrifice a freedom we want or feel entitled to, so that we can experience something greater.
I love Ruth, and the cat was a recipient of that love through some personal sacrifices I made, and regrettably complained about. As I write this I can see where God is taking me next… Can I forsake and sacrifice the next time in quiet humility instead of complaining? Can God be the only one to know the sacrifice I make to whomever I love next? My prayer is that He can bring me to this place. A place where an appearance of external peace would not betray the internal discontent. Because, ultimately, it is okay to be at odds with myself in order to love someone else well and demonstrate to others that that’s what’s most important – the loving, not the sacrifice!
I realize the importance of acknowledging feelings, and work them out privately or with a trusted friend, but in my experience my feelings often are not to be trusted to carry out the will of God. John 3:30 says, “He must become greater, I must become less.”
Every part of my base nature, in this case the selfish complaining, must become less and the loving must become more. Once again God has graciously given me a new picture of what that looks like. And I know He offers me holy fulfillment when I can do just what He did for me.
So, the cat is gone, but he has left a valuable life lesson. And for that I am very grateful.
is what we feel when we actually do something wrong. Guilt is always about behavior. Through guilt our hearts confront behavior, and behavior, in turn, exposes the state of our hearts. Guilt is relational. It speaks to the pain we have caused ourselves, others or God and drives us to forgiveness.
is humility, it tells me that I am limited and that I need other’s help. Living with healthy shame is living within your appropriate authority, it shows us how deficient we are without others and God to help us live fully.
creates self-rejection. We believe we should hide who we are, believing that we are defective and worthless. Unlike guilt that gives us freedom, toxic shame increases the bondage of hopelessness. It tells us we are never free. It tries to work for forgiveness – to make us perfect. It tries to make us earn what is a gift from another’s heart.
Guilt always points to the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. If the sense of guilt persists after honest searching, it’s probably not guilt. It is usually toxic shame telling us that we are bad, defective incompetent, or unforgivable. Go to God to break the chains of deception and accept His love and truth that you are a Child of the King, an heir and dearly loved!
Book referenced: The Voice of the Heart; a call to full living, by Chip Dodd.
…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
1 John 1: 9 & 10
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.