A Jewish son complains to his mother, "Mom, you lay too much guilt on me," to which the mother responds, astonished, "How can I possibly lay too much guilt on you, my dear son? I DON'T SEE YOU ENOUGH TO LAY GUILT ON YOU!"
If there is one emotion associated with being Jewish, it is guilt. Jews seem to be the most guilty people in the world, always feeling sorry for having done something wrong. (OK, it's a toss-up with Catholics!) Guilt seems to consume us at every turn.
Is guilt a productive emotion? A lot of people think it is. After all, isn't it good to feel bad about the bad things we do?
My sense is that guilt is just a big cop-out. It's an emotion that allows people to do bad things and still feel like they are good people. It's the ultimate escape clause from the human obligation to be a good person and do the right thing. Do whatever you like, as long as you feel remorseful later.
Imagine this: A man knocks on your door and tells you he is hungry. He asks for something to eat. You look at him and decide he doesn't look poor enough: "Come back when you really look emaciated," you tell him as you slam the door. At first, you feel good, really proud of yourself. "There, I didn't give in to that parasite. Let him get a job, the lazy loafer." But a few minutes later, suddenly and unexpectedly, you feel terrible, racked with guilt. What does this emotion achieve? Why do you suddenly feel bad about what you have done when just a few moments before you had no qualms whatsoever?
Because this way you can avoid giving money to the poor and still feel like you are a good person. If you had simply turned the guy away and not felt anything, then that would be proof that you are selfish, insensitive, and basically wicked. But you felt bad that you turned him away, right? Doesn't that show that deep inside, you are a caring person? So now you feel good.and you've kept your money in the process!
My friend Sharon had a very overprotective mother. Soon after Sharon arrived at Oxford, her mother began calling her nearly every day. She treated Sharon like a little child, and it drove Sharon batty. Indeed, Sharon's mom was so concerned for her daughter's welfare (Sharon had an inclination to date the "wrong" kind of men) that she even called me, as her rabbi, to ask me to keep an eye on her and to report back any information. I told her that I couldn't exactly do that because I was a rabbi, not a CIA operative.
One Friday, Sharon's mom showed up for one of our weekly Sabbath dinners that everyone, including parents, was welcome to attend. Usually, we drew about 80 students. Sharon, however, did not take kindly to seeing her mother turn up unannounced. Introducing her mother to friends was not a means of asserting her independence.
But there was also something deeper. Sharon was the upwardly mobile type who always wanted to have the "right" friends. I sensed that deep down, Sharon was embarrassed of her mother. An immigrant from Eastern Europe, her mother still spoke the part (she had a strong Yiddish accent), looked the part (she had a very simple style of dress), and lived the part (she and Sharon's father lived in one of London's less impressive suburbs). Sharon didn't exactly want to be closely associated with her.
So when her mother arrived that night, Sharon did something that must have been out of character: She publicly confronted her mother and accused her of prying. Everybody watched them together as Sharon shrieked, "You're ruining my life! Why don't you just leave me alone?" She then listed a whole barrage of complaints as to how her mother had upset her. Utterly humiliated, her mother ran out to her car and drove off.
I was flabbergasted. Sure, we all have issues with our parents, but there is a time and place for everything. In an attempt to dispel the tension and salvage the spirit of the Sabbath meal, I tried to distract everyone with an impromptu speech about something minor that had happened to me during the week. A few minutes later, Sharon asked to speak to me in my office.
"I feel terrible, Shmuley. I feel so guilty about what I just did." I knew what Sharon was trying to do. She was hoping to justify her actions--perhaps listen to me condone them--and thereby make herself feel better.
"You know, Sharon," I said instead, "if you want to be selfish and bad, then at least take pride in it! Don't give me this mediocre nonsense about feeling guilty afterward. Guilt is for cowards. You're way too tough for that. Why are you robbing yourself of the pleasure of having socked your mother in the solar plexus? Heck, you really gave it to your mom. She has been a pest to you, and you belted her publicly. She deserved it! Anyhow, I can guarantee that you won't be hearing much from her in the near future. Congratulations."
I wasn't going to allow her to walk all over her parent like a doormat, express remorse (to me!), and wind up feeling like a good person afterward.
The opposite of guilt is not innocence, but conscience. A conscience is the safety net that prevents you from descending into the abyss of evil and spitefulness. When you do something wrong, you can either suffer from guilt or from pangs of conscience. The radical difference between the two is that while the former leads you to self-destruction, the latter impels you to self-improvement. Many people can live with guilt, but few can tolerate their conscience. Indeed, while guilt liberates, conscience obligates--it forces you to act in accordance with your inner will.
How do you know if what you are feeling is guilt or conscience? Guilt paralyzes us and draws us inward. If you remain utterly immobile after having done something wrong, then you have guilt. Conscience, on the other hand, appeals to our nobility of spirit and causes us to act. Conscience is where a man says to himself, "I am better than that. I know what I want to be, and I won't allow myself to sink."
Some people will challenge that people should feel bad about the bad things they do. After all, isn't there room for regret or remorse in life? The answer is yes, you should feel bad for the bad things you do. And we will explore ways of properly expressing regret in an upcoming column.