Guilt and forgiveness are two related words/concepts that are very powerful for me, both in a kink way (especially guilt, there), and in other ways. As such, I’ve spent some time thinking about what they mean to me.
Most fundamentally, guilt, to me is about separation and distance, and forgiveness is about bringing back and together again.
Beyond that, for me there are three kinds of guilt: fact-and-not-feeling guilt, from-inside guilt, and from-outside guilt. (They are not mutually exclusive, and more than one can be present in a situation at the same time).
Fact-and-not-feeling guilt is, as the name suggests, not about anyone’s emotions. It is about a situation where someone did something that they are now being considered guilty for. As such, they are seen as separated in this way from everyone else – they might be regarded differently, treated differently, etc. In some cases, there is then some condition that can be met for the person to be able to ‘return’/to be forgiven – maybe if they ‘pay for their crime’ with some punishment, or if they show themselves to be penitent, or if enough time passes. And in some cases this is a permanent condition – that person is considered separate for life, and even if some conditions are met, they can never fully ‘return’/be fully forgiven. As far as I can tell, Les Misérables, for instance, is about this kind of situation.
From-inside guilt is when a person considers themselves to have done something wrong. They feel guilt for this, and they feel like this makes them separated – they regard themselves differently, and may or may not feel that others should regard and/or treat them differently as well. There are then three subsequent options. Some feel that the separation can only be breached from the other side, by those on the other side deciding to forgive. This is then framed in terms of the grace/mercy of those others. Some feel that they need to span the separation through their own efforts. This is then framed as atonement – they want to contribute something, for instance effort or suffering, and it is through this that they can ‘return’. Therefore, the wider they see the separation as being, the more atonement they are likely to feel is needed. And some feel that they ought to stay separate, that there is no way to go back. For instance, a character of mine believes that after her execution she will end up in her faith’s version of Hell, and also believes that this is exactly the correct outcome.
From-outside guilt is when one person, usually the authority, creates a negative feeling of separation in another person. This usually happens between people who have some sort of bond, and the separation here is between the person being told they’re guilty, and the person doing the telling. It involves distance-feeling created by the first side – “you did this and it was wrong, I am disappointed”, and the second party very strongly feeling this distance as painful and wanting to bridge it. Here again there are three options, this time for the first party. They can grant their forgiveness (either explicitly or implicitly), therefore connecting back. There can be variety in time and intensity here – from something like waiting a moment, saying ‘I’m glad to see you’ll be taking this more seriously from now on’ and allowing the interaction to continue normally to remaining distant as the guilty part begs and cries and apologizes repeatedly before finally saying ‘very well, you’re forgiven’. Alternatively, they could impose some sort of punishment first. This one is common in corporal punishment stories, usually manifesting in a ‘lecture (seperation) – punishment – comfort and forgiveness’ sequence. Punishment in this scenario usually involves the party being punished thinking about how they’ve disappointed the first party, as opposed to simply about what they did. Finally, they could completely refuse to forgive, and let the separation and its feeling remain.