Dallas Jewish Monthly, September 2018
Guilt, Shame, and a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Hello, my name is Michael, and I’m a recovering guilt-aholic. I used to be addicted to guilt. At times, I felt “guilty” about everything in my life. As a child, if I was hanging out with one group of friends, I felt guilty about excluding another group of friends. If I was hanging out with all of my friends, I felt guilty about not spending time with my beloved family. To this day I still feel tiny pangs of guilt about consistently scoring at will against opponents on the basketball court, especially the quicker and faster ones. Specifically, my former all-consuming neurosis adopted a particularly unsavory ethnocultural flavor: Jewish guilt.
Contrary to popular conception, Jews do not have a monopoly on feeling guilty, according to data collection of religious groups in the US. Still, I cannot help but hypothesize that the American Jewish experience has more than just anecdotally embodied feelings of “guilt” in its underpinnings. To be sure, it’s in the lox, it’s in the bagels. It’s all over Hollywood, where Jewish writers draw from embers of real-life experiences to portray overbearing parents (and occasionally bubbies). It’s in the very fabric of the Big Bang Theory (the show, not the theory). In 2012, there was even a motion picture made entirely about this topic, fittingly called “The Guilt Trip,” in which Jewish actors were typecast in an attempt to comically portray obtrusively Jewish characters. Recollecting on our own familial experiences, how many times were we the hapless recipients of relentless or insidious guilt trips? Come to think of it, how often do we ourselves inflict a hefty guilt trip on our friends or family? Maybe it’s just ubiquitous. What’s the big deal you may ask, isn’t it in our Jewish DNA? Isn’t it a harmless idiosyncrasy?
Simply put, no. To knowingly “guilt” someone else into acting in my best interest is immoral. This is because it is, in essence, emotionally manipulative. When I insert “guilt” into someone else’s psyche, I am trying to control him surreptitiously by exploiting his vulnerability. It is about me and getting my way. It is also an admission of the inferiority of my position, as I cannot otherwise persuade you of the cogency of my arguments through their intellectual merits.
Trying to guilt someone is a pernicious, subtle imposition of external will on another’s internal reality. (Needless to say, sometimes it is not subtle at all!) Moreover, it is almost always counterproductive. Eventually, the internal will always emerges in some form to replace the external will – be it via revolt or resentment.
But isn’t feeling guilty an inseparable part of the High Holy Day experience? Apples, honey, shofar…guilt? And can’t some forms of guilt be positive, like when I have knowingly acted inappropriately?
Actually, when we pejoratively use the word “guilt” we are likely referring to something else entirely, namely: “shame.” To understand the difference between guilt and shame we turn to famed-psychiatrist Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski. Guilt, he teaches, is the recognition that I made a mistake; shame is the feeling that I am a mistake. In other words, feelings of guilt are situational (e.g. I said something that I regret), whereas feelings of shame are existential (I am fundamentally inadequate). The former can be healthy and productive, but the latter is always unhelpful, always inappropriate, and has no rightful place in our religious settings or otherwise.
Guilt can be positive if it helps motivate me to analyze my past mistakes and change my present behavior. If this is the form of guilt I experience on the High Holy Days, the will to improve my character remains inner-directed. I am not perfect. I am flawed. This is not self-degradation, this is reality-testing. It is an admission of fallibility, vulnerability, and the awareness that I am part of the human experience. Shame, on the other hand, is often debilitating, creating a sense of hopelessness and futility in trying to improve my actions. Sometimes it is referred to in the counseling parlance as “toxic shame.” This type of shame should be evicted from our collective Jewish experience. Ironically, the feeling that “I am a mistake” is hyper-focused on the self, and subconsciously amplifies my own distorted sense of self-importance, leaving no room for God or others. It goes like this: I cannot make a mistake, because I have to be perfect, superhuman, and above criticism. Any shortcoming is intolerable because it undermines my self-concept. In this scenario, who am I actually worshipping!?!
How can we access healthy guilt this holiday period without descending into a preoccupation with self and shame? There is a way to reinvigorate our spiritual vitality and experience an empowering period of holistic growth this year. It is a way out of the crushing burden of toxic shame. And of all places, it can be found in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood.
Believe it or not, the unassuming, deceptively appealing Fred Rogers was nothing short of a spiritual visionary. An ordained minister, this exemplar of virtue personified humility, love, and patience.
To taste a glimpse of this pedagogical master, I implore you to watch the heartwarming new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The film is less about who he was, and more about the message that he lived and breathed for decades: Every child deserves unconditional love and support. In an era of cultural confusion, he modeled that warmth and support for each viewer of his life-changing program. The documentary does not shy away from portraying that both posthumously, and while he was alive, Rogers had vocal detractors and critics. The most pointed objections to his methods were that he overinflated children’s egos and robbed them of the lesson that the world will not tolerate their egocentrism. The critics argued that children must not be taught that they are loved unconditionally and coddled, lest they encounter a harsh reality and find themselves bereft of the needed tools and preparation to cope with the vicissitudes of life.
Heads up, millennials!
Here we arrive at a spiritual principle that weaves together our High Holy Day conundrum and unlocks the Rogers treasure trove: To grow in any mature relationship, I must be on solid emotional footing. I must feel secure, accepted, and valued for me qua me. Rogers brilliantly understood that unconditional love is a prerequisite to all self-growth and development. A true man of G-d, he supplied as much as was humanly possible. He never sought to truncate ambition, drive, or creative enterprise, he simply knew that the godly spirit of a person gives her her inherent value, not her achievements.
Parachuting into Rosh Hashanah after having spent negligible time during the rest of the year struggling with spirituality is a recipe for misunderstanding. This period is not meant to be one of toxic shame and hyper-focus on our wrongdoings, it is meant to culminate a long and rewarding year of an intense, personal, and loving relationship with the Creator of the Universe. Without that context, the demands of these days may undercut our path to genuine introspection, and we may feel negatively judged by an emotionally neglectful Omnipotent apparition of our own making. This is comparable to going through childhood development without ever being the recipient of love and acceptance, and then being expected in adulthood to receive messages of criticism without feeling wounded. Children who trust that their parents love them unconditionally can learn how to receive criticism without it being an existential wound.
Moving forward, the dear reader has an opportunity to catapult into this coming year with the assurance that the Creator of the Universe cares for you, as evidenced by your existing, and accepts you as an individual. With that constant assurance, I may embark on the real work, the mature work, of growing up and holding myself accountable.
Always with joy,