I hope you are well. Please don’t worry about me. I’m just fine considering I can’t breathe or eat. The important thing is that you have a nice holiday, thousands of miles away from your ailing mother. I’ve sent along my last ten dollars in this card, which I hope you’ll spend on my beautiful grandchildren, whom I never see. God knows their mother never buys them anything nice. They look anemic in their pictures, poor, thin babies.
Thank you so much for the birthday flowers, dear boy. I put them in the freezer so they’ll stay fresh for my grave. I know I’ll need them any day.
Well son, it’s time for me to drag myself to bed now. I lost my cane beating off muggers last week, but don’t you worry about me. I’m also getting used to the cold since they turned my heat off and am grateful because the frost on my bed numbs the constant pain. Now don’t you even think about sending any more money, because I know you need it for those expensive family holidays you take every year, though you never come see me. Give my love to my darling grand-babies and my regards to whatever-her-name-is — the one with the black roots who stole you screaming from my bosom.
Love Always, Your poor, old mother
Guilt. We Jews are famous for it. But the notion of guilt actually proceeds from the idea of atonement, that is, how to rid ourselves of guilt rather than how to incur guilt.
Guilt grows out of conscience, which is the beginning of ethics. Without guilt, a brain-embedded ideal of right and wrong, civilization crumbles. Civilization relies upon trust. And trust relies upon the moral idea of “this is right, and that is wrong, and I can distinguish the difference, not only in my mind, but in my gut.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Aharei Mot, Aaron the high priest is commanded to offer sacrifices, one of which is the sin sacrifice for Yom Kippur. Y.K. being the repentance of sin and acknowledgement of guilt holiday, you’d expect a lot of discussion about the sin offering, and you’d be right.
But what does this commandment accomplish? Since we claim the commandments emanate from God, repentance solidifies your relationship with the Almighty. But there’s a catch: You see, Already by the time of the Mishnah, about 200 ce, atonement before God depends upon atonement between people. The Mishnah states:
For transgressions between man and God, Yom Kippur atones; for transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases the other.
Obviously, it’s not just men, it’s everyone: men, women and children. Not only do we proclaim that Yom Kippur does not atone if you have transgressed against another human being, but every sin against another human being harbors within a component against God. You can’t sin against anyone else without offending God as well.
Now you all know this. I am not telling you anything new, so you might ask why I am giving this sermon in the first place. Well, here comes the reason. People confuse two types of negative feelings: there’s guilt, and then there’s shame. The difference between them is important. Guilt says to us, I feel bad because of something I’ve done. It’s results from behavior.
Shame says, “I am ashamed of who I am.”
So guilt is about deeds, and shame is about self.
Guilt is about something that can be separated from yourself. You did the wrong thing. Shame is a characterization of yourself. You are inherently bad.
To be capable of feeling guilt is actually a very good thing. There’s a diagnosis for people who feel no guilt: it’s called sociopath. They are a scourge on civilization. They have no conscience, therefore neither truth nor fairness matter to them. They evince no empathy for others. Feeling guilt actually makes you a better person. And the best thing about it is: guilt can be unloaded. No, we no longer expiate by offering animal sacrifices, but we do confess our sins, and make amends to those we have transgressed against. We can apologize, and express sorrow at our bad decision. We can pay back, or do nice things in return for our transgression. We can repair the breached relationship, if we permit ourselves the courage and vulnerability to experience the guilt. More on this in a bit.
But shame is different. Shame defines the person rather than the deed the person committed. There’s a big difference between lying and being a liar. Lying describes an instance of not telling the truth. Being a liar characterizes the person as unworthy of trust, and her words as being unreliable.
Social worker and researcher Brene Brown teaches that we live today with a plague of shame. You all suffer from shame. And I’ll bet your just suffer with it, and you rarely discuss it with anyone, so it festers.
What is your shame about? I don’t really know. It can be about thinking you’re a bad parent, or something you did years ago that still haunts you. It can be about abuse of drugs or any addiction. It can be about cheating on one thing or another, or failing to reach your full potential. It can be about too little income in your own eyes, or failure to rise to the level you desired in an occupation. We manage to create shame around myriad self-inflicted wounds, and we live that shame to our detriment.
Brene Brown interestingly observed in one of her TED talks that shame correlates positively, goes together with:
And you know what’s just as interesting? Guilt, which is much maligned, correlates negatively with the same list. That is to say: when we recognize that we have done wrong, feel guilt, inspect ourselves and correct our actions, when we allow ourselves tvulnerability to being wrong and correct our path, we actually improve our lives and our relationships.
Now here’s the thing. I just said that admitting to guilt and correcting it, confessing and improving, improves you life. So that means if you know someone who is guilty, you should tell him, right? You’d be doing her a favor. “Rabbi Levin says we should list how we are guilty, admit it, and repent; and since you can’t admit what you’ve done wrong, I am going to help you by telling you.”
NOOOOOOO, that’s inflicting shame. The Hebrew language has an interesting take on shame. One of the words for shaming is L’halbeen. It means to make white, like a corpse. When you shame someone, we say, you are killing them. Never shame another person.
So, confessing to ourselves is a personal and daily chore; a return to God; a private path that most often we walk alone, and you have to be very intimate emotionally with someone to let them walk that path with you. Because it admission of guilt makes us sooooo vulnerable
A little bit ago, when talking about guilt, I said, “More on this in a bit.” Here it is. Many of us are ashamed because we are afraid we are not worthy. We have failed at something, and someone will find out we are not what we claim to be. For years I watched very capable people, mostly men, sweat bullets over something very small: reciting the Torah blessings. Why? Because they worried they’d make a mistake, and they were afraid of public mistakes. People often pretend to be living near perfect lives, with near perfect children, and near perfect lawns and marriages. And in every case, part of it is a pretend game, because they are afraid of the vulnerability of public failure.
But all of us fall short. The trick is to love others with their vulnerabilities, without mentioning those vulnerabilities. Shaming a person doesn’t make them tougher; it just wounds them and makes them sadder, drives them to isolation and anti-social behavior. Judaism teaches to repent our own guilt, and to forgive others for their’s. Apply the corrective to ourselves; cut a lot of slack for those we love.
We Jews brought guilt sacrifices to acknowledge our individual and collective straying from the right path. Anyone who can’t admit to making a mistake is a fraud, a weakling and lacks courage, because we were designed to make mistakes. Guilt is not a bad thing, it’s a mid-course correction on the map of your life, so that you will arrive at the destination of your choosing: a meaningful and purposeful, joyful life.
So what about that mother’s letter to her son? He should call her. Take the kids to see her, with or without his wife. He should send flowers on her birthday, and get the heat turned back on. He should ignore her badgering without indulging her endless whining. Why? Because each of us lives with his own demons, and we don’t need to feed the demons of others.