by Miriam Adahan
Guilt is a little-understood emotion. The positive side of guilt is that it gets us to do teshuvah, (positive change). We feel so bad about what we've done, that we resolve never to do it again. The negative side is that it can paralyze people with such overwhelming feelings of shame and self-disgust that the person ceases functioning as a normal human being.
Positive guilt leads to changes. It's like medicine. It heals you so that you can go on living with increased awareness and self-control. Negative guilt makes you hate yourself and everyone else. It stifles the will to live and to love. If a little guilt is good, don't think that a lot of it is better! That's an incorrect assumption; surely, you wouldn't take 50 doses of penicillin at one time just because the doctor told you that one would be good.
It's good to feel a little guilty if you have done something wrong which you are able to correct or do teshuvah about. It is wrong to feel guilty if all you do is end up stewing in self-deprecation for the rest of your life.
It is very sad when an individual, upon hearing that he has a disease, or that a loss has been suffered, reacts with, "What did I do wrong?" Then, in addition to the terrible pain of the loss, the person has to deal with the pain of feeling ashamed of himself. According to our sages, "Shame is the greatest of all pains" (Talmud - Shabbat 50b). So, people often increase their pain by thinking:
"I must be a terrible person to have given birth to a child who is blind and retarded."
"I must have done some terrible crime to have not found a husband yet."
"I'll hate myself for the rest of my life for not having done more for her."
I have heard these words over and over from some of the most wonderful people I have ever met -- good, kind, giving, intelligent people who don't know what they have done, but assume that they must be "awful" to be punished in this way. But how can they do teshuvah when the crime is unknown? It's not like a thief who gets caught and says, "I'll never do that again." These are women who have devoted their lives to being the best they know how.
Is it appropriate for a woman to think, "I spoke gossip (lashon hara), and that's why I got cancer"? A friend of mine whose husband had undergone brain surgery was told by a "friend," "It's because you didn't appreciate him enough. That's why this happened." Another friend, whose baby had just undergone an operation for cancer that morning, was told by a neighbor who came to visit, "It's because of all the terrible things you did [in your youth]." These are hardly helpful statements!
Guilt is good only if it gets you to do something positive. Otherwise, don't waste your time feeling guilty. You'll end up being joyless and hateful. That certainly is not what God wants of us and could not possibly have been the reason He enabled us to experience this emotion.
Eliahu Kitov writes, in "The Jew and His Home," that all emotions were given to us to serve God with greater love and awe. So, if your guilt gets you to use seat belts, to be more careful about checking your food for bugs, to make sure that your mezuzahs are kosher, or to make peace with some relative with whom you've been fighting -- good! Do it and then drop the guilt. You don't need it anymore. It has served its purpose.
At the same time, if a woman who has been feeling guilty about her not-so-clean house can resolve, without guilt, to "clean up the house," do more kindness, or be kinder to her spouse, children and parents, she will accomplish much more through a mature approach -- one which brings more happiness to all.
One day, I got two calls from people about guilt. One said, "I feel so guilty about friends of mine who have serious illnesses. I feel that our whole generation is not being strict enough about [the mitzvot to avoid gossip and to give] the benefit of the doubt. I'm so upset that I've hardly been able to function for the last few days."
I asked her what positive thing she could do, such as perhaps going to a different classroom each week and talking about this subject. She said that with a large family, she just couldn't get out of the house, nor did she have the personality for this. Then I said, "How about calling up one person a day and telling her to be careful about these two mitzvot, just as you have done for me?" That suggestion brought her out of her doldrums. Her guilt had motivated her to do something positive.
On the other hand, another woman called who had been married many years and was still childless. She told me that she sometimes feels so guilty and ashamed, as if her barren condition is a public announcement that she is a failure as a human being. Furthermore, her husband tells her she should feel guilty about her pangs of jealousy of the women around her who all seem to be pregnant or nursing. I told her that guilt was inappropriate and was only adding to her pain. I reminded her that when the prophetess Chanah was told by her husband that she shouldn't be upset at being barren because, after all, she had such a wonderful husband, she rebuked him! Her heartbreak at not having children was a separate issue, one that was not erased by the other blessings of her life.
In this case, I told her that jealousy was a very normal and expected emotion, and that she should acknowledge it and not be ashamed that it was there, as guilt only made her feel worse. Instead of dwelling on guilt, I told her to focus on what she was learning from being put in this situation.
She asked me what I meant about "learning." I told her that it seems obvious that the soul comes into this lifetime like a student going into a university or a yeshiva. It needs to learn certain things. While there, one might be learning biology and art, or the laws of kashrut. So, too, with each person: this one is learning about faith in the midst of poverty; that one is learning about faith in the midst of physical handicaps; and the other is learning about faith in the midst of emotional illness.
I asked her, "What is your condition teaching you? For example, perhaps you are learning to have faith in God even if you don't get what you want in life. It's teaching you about joy in the midst of pain. Your 'course' is about barrenness. You have to learn in the only way the soul learns -- by undergoing the experience directly." She called me back a few days later to say that her spirits had lifted and that by focusing on what she was learning, she felt less jealousy and guilt.
Finger of Fate?
Another woman, the mother of a retarded child, told me:
"Until I met you, I was very cold toward this child. Every time I looked at her, I thought to myself that she was a punishment for some terrible crime which I didn't even know I had committed. It seemed so unfair, as I have always striven to be such a good person. Then, after talking to you, I began to see my daughter as a kind of teacher. All of a sudden, after almost nine years, I began to relate to her and love her for herself. And I can feel that, in return, she is responding so positively to me now."
The public shame which many people experience when they go through a tragedy is often very great. It is as though the "finger of fate" is pointing at them and proclaiming their badness. This is a terrible tragedy in itself, for the fact is that we all make mistakes. Who knows which error is connected to which specific loss, or why some get such heavy "fines" while others seem to go through life more easily? It is very simplistic and childish to think, "Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen only to bad people."
"There is no person so wholly righteous on earth that he always does good and never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
That means that if we are going to function on a level of human fairness, a lot of things happen which do not seem fair in our eyes. It is an act of arrogance to think we know why God does what He does. No one but a true prophet knows why anything happens...
Reprinted with permission from InnerNet.org and excerpted from "NOBODY'S PERFECT" - maintaining emotional health (The Miriam Adaham Handbook). Published by targum.com.