Beliefnet
Everyday Ethics

jewish mom pointing finger.jpg“Not if you’re Jewish,” is my mom’s answer. And indeed, it’s been my experience that we Jews ingest guilt with our mother’s milk (not that I’d know, since my mother didn’t find it ‘convenient’ to breast-feed me [ha, see what I did there?!]). My grandmother was quite capable of saying, without one iota of irony, “That’s alright, I’ll just sit here in the dark,” if one of us didn’t rush over to her apartment to replace a burnt-out bulb fast enough.

Jewish guilt is one of the oldest cliches in the book. But is it unethical?
And why am I asking?
Let me answer the second question first. Today my mom and I got in a snit over something petty. I felt she was going back on a commitment, which of course she had a right to do, even if it inconvenienced me. But instead of maturely telling her, “You know, Mom, I’m a little upset that my plans have to change after you promised X. I would like you to reconsider your decision if at all possible,” I laid a classic guilt trip on her. I said, “Oh, OK. That’s fine. It’s just that you always do this (she doesn’t), and I was so looking forward to X. But that’s fine. Really, totally fine.”
Am I a schmuck or what?
Sure, some argue guilt and/or shame are healthy emotions, and that we instill them in our kids to teach them proper behavior. Yet the kind of behavior I’m talking about teaches nothing, and sows only discord and negativism. Responding to disappointment with a guilt trip (a trait I learned from my ancestors but which I am clearly continuing to perpetuate) seems to me a somewhat childish, un-evolved way to go. In my opinion, there are only two grown up, ethical responses in circumstances like these, where you love the person and don’t want to have a fight, but have strong feelings about an issue. To wit:
  • confront the source of discord directly, expressing yourself clearly and making your wishes and feelings known
  • suck it up and silently find a way to make peace with the other person’s decision
Instead, I’m left with my mom’s original decision standing, plus both of us feeling crummy. Sometimes I wonder about the real purpose of Jewish guilt (or Catholic guilt, or heck, let’s be inclusive, any kind of guilt). Is it actually a forlorn last hope we’ll get the person to change their mind and do what we originally wanted them to do? Or a passive-aggressive way to punish them? Or both?
Either way, it’s not the best way to behave. Sorry, Ma.
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