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Monday, August 2, 2010

Don't Ignore the "Early Alarms" in Your Life: Guilt and Pain

This past week, one of my daughters brought to my attention an annoying beep that kept happening every minute or so in her bedroom where she happened to be playing before dinner, and she didn’t know what the beeping was.

I got up from my reading and went to her room. Before I entered I knew exactly what it was – the battery in her smoke detector was low.

You need to understand that we’ve got 10-foot ceilings throughout our house and the builder installed the detectors out of reach – even if I stand on a chair to try and change the batteries.

That means I have to go to the garage; get the six-foot step ladder; lug it into the house; carry it up the stairs; change all the batteries up there and then repeat the process for all the smoke detectors downstairs.

My reason for changing the batteries at the same time is because once one of them goes kaput, it’s safe to assume they’ll all expire a couple days apart. So rather than spend the next two weeks schlepping that ladder in-and-out of the house, I get them all done together.

Regardless, it’s a hassle and for a second I actually thought about just ignoring the beeping until the battery fully died.

But then I thought a little deeper. What if I forgot to replace the battery? What if there was a fire? What if something happened to my daughter?

I started to feel guilty for even entertaining the thought of not taking action, and I jumped out of my chair and got the ladder.

While changing the batteries throughout my house that evening, my mind started to wander about how grateful I was for this warning system. Without that advance warning, a fire could devastate our family and home. I don’t want to risk that and I wanted to avoid that pain.

I subsequently started thinking about other warning systems in our lives - I mentioned both in the previous three sentences, pain and guilt.

The first such system that came to mind was manifested pain in our physical bodies. Nobody likes pain, but we should all be grateful for it – to a degree. That’s because pain is the most immediate way for us to know that something is wrong in our body. Once we know something is wrong or doesn’t feel right, we can do something to fix it. Even though we typically view pain as being bad, it is a critical early-warning system that contributes to our survival.

Think of the worst physical pain you’ve ever experienced it. It probably led to a visit to the doctor or an emergency room. But what if you hadn’t sought out medical help for that pain? What if you didn’t have those painful warning signals? Would you still be alive today? Even though pain hurts, pain can help. Just like changing the battery on the smoke detector, the body and its central nervous system require a certain amount of maintenance (e.g. rest, exercise, proper nutrition…etc.) to function.
The next warning system that came to mind was guilt. What pain means for the body; guilt means for the mind or soul. I think guilt makes us aware of our improper conduct, poor choices and hurtful interactions with others. Since we can’t escape the fact that we live with other people in this life, guilt helps sensitize us to their needs and where our engagement with others might have fallen short.

However, guilt, remorse and repentance must be learned and developed over time. One of the best ways to ensure a healthy “guilty conscience” that curbs our natural inclination to selfishness and spurs us to change our behavior is adherence to a faith tradition – religion is a free alternative to ethics courses or behavioral therapy.

Regardless, pain and guilt are early-warning systems in each of our lives that can’t be ignored – just like a smoke detector shouldn’t be ignored. Additionally, each of those systems requires maintenance to ensure it works every day and is ready to go - the life you save could be someone you love or at the very least yourself.

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Don't Ignore the "Early Alarms" in Your Life


  1. That makes so much sense, and rings true in so many ways. I sit here thinking of all the ways this has happened in my life as well. I sit - imagining the "what if's" of certain incidents. So, yeah, good thoughts to keep in mind for sure. So thankful for these warning signs we do have.

  2. @Laura, I agree with you. I think it's amazing what we take for granted and wrongly perceive, and being mindful can help shift our thinking. Thanks for your continued support!

  3. Just read your blog about the smoke detector. Next time you change your clocks for daylight savings time, change the batteries in your smoke detectors!

  4. @On Twitter - will do! I'll also switch out my toothbrush ;-)