Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript – March 19, 2000
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Good evening. This is Simon Jacobson and welcome again to our show. Tonight I’ll be dealing with a topic about which I’ve received many emails and communications: “Guilt and Shame: Are They Constructive or Destructive?” So if you’re feeling guilty about anything right now, or you’re feeling guilty for not feeling guilty, this is the show for you.
This weekend I spoke in New Brunswick, NJ, and I had the honor to share the podium, and be on the same platform, as the esteemed author Chaim Potok. It was quite interesting for me because he writes in his book The Chosen, and some of his other books, about the tension and struggle between spiritual life and secularism. We really bonded, I could say in some way. He spoke Friday evening and I spoke on Saturday afternoon, and we had an interesting communication.
The topic we discussed, which probably deserves its own radio show, is the issue of maintaining your objectivity when you’re exposed to certain spiritual revelations. He had mentioned in his talk that he did not want to meet personally the great Rebbe, called the Lubavitcher Rebbe (whom I had the privilege of working for for many years and my book Toward a Meaningful Life is actually based on his teachings), because he felt that it would take away his objectivity.
I asked him the question, if he was invited up to Mt. Sinai or he saw the burning bush, would he reject and decline from going up the mountain because he would be afraid of losing his objectivity? It was an interesting exchange we had: clearly, no one in life is really objective. Our objectivity is really based on relative terms in the sense of what our exposure is to different life experiences.
I just wanted to share that with you because it was quite an interesting and engaging discussion that we had.
I don’t know if it’s connected to guilt or shame, and if it’s not I don’t feel guilty about it, but to get to the topic at hand here, there are two elements that I’d like to touch upon. The first is a more academic or philosophical, historical perspective: the issue of collective guilt and shame—for instance, is it possible that due to the sins or crimes of a certain individual, that can cause a collective guilt for an entire group that identifies with those individuals? And how deep should that guilt and shame pervade?
You recently hear in the news that nations or even religions are asking forgiveness of other religions for damage or destruction they may have done, which in a sense is a collective type of guilt. Is that appropriate? Is it something that we should look at or is it something which really doesn’t ring true because why should individuals in a group be responsible for what others may have done.
The second part is of course on a personal level. What role do guilt and shame play in our lives? What would we be like if we weren’t guilty? Or if we were shameless and guiltless? Would that in any way undermine the human condition? On the other hand, is there such a thing as healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt, and likewise with shame?
So I welcome your comments to these questions as this is an open forum, and I believe that to have a discussion that resonates and touches us all in a way that we can all feel inspired and empowered, it requires a grassroots type of interaction and contribution in which not only one of us speaks a monologue, but that it really is a collective effort. Hearing thoughts and feelings from different people has always been my objective in doing this radio show as part of the Meaningful Life Center in general, that finding meaning in life is recognizing that each of us is a musical note in a larger composition, and we each have something unique to contribute.
So I would really like to hear what our listeners have to say about guilt and shame and the role it plays both in our collective history and in our personal lives, and is it healthy, unhealthy, or constructive or destructive.
To make some comment of my own about this topic, I was educated to find Hebrew parallels for certain words, because the Hebrew language has a certain power as opposed to English or Latin or many of the European languages which are descriptive languages, meaning they describe phenomena and objects and experiences. Hebrew is actually a metaphorical language. I believe Chinese is also that way (although I’m not familiar with Chinese but that’s what they say), meaning that words are more than just descriptions but they actually can contain and they often require perhaps a sentence or two to really describe the multiple dimensions, and multi-dimensional meanings of certain words.
So in thinking about the Hebrew words for guilt and shame I couldn’t really come up with a word for guilt. In Hebrew there’s a word for shame, which is busha and there’s a word for regret or remorse, which is charata. However, even though I’m sure there’s a word for guilt, I couldn’t find one (maybe chalima, or maybe other words for it, but it’s not really prevalent). And that told me something, because it means that if it was biblical or in any way a historically powerful or positive force, then perhaps the word would be more prevalent.
Words like shame or remorse do exist in any type of repentance. In any type of repair or healing past wounds requires a form of remorse, regret, recognition and awareness of past mistakes, and of course the second half is repairing it for the future.
However, I haven’t really discovered the word for guilt. If there’s a caller who does know of one, I invite you to please call in.
But I think what that tells us all is that it’s very important to look at these tools called guilt and shame for what they are. Because I think they can also be quite destructive if they’re not tempered.
Now, how often are children made to feel guilty due to someone else’s mistakes, and then that child starts getting a sense of expecting to be accused of anything coming his or her way. Is that a guilt that’s healthy?
So it’s one thing if a person made a mistake—that’s called accountability. But perhaps the word “guilt” doesn’t exist in the spiritual realm because guilt is a negative emotion. It doesn’t imply any type of positive, constructive follow-up. It just implies feeling guilty.
Our society in many ways has turned somewhat, I won’t call it punitive, but due to a collective philosophical approach which I think is based a lot on insecurity and fear, guilt has become a very powerful, dominant presence in children’s lives, in education, and in the way we discipline. Both collective guilt that I referred to and personal guilt affect us in so many ways.
I see a call just came in from someone who has defined the word “guilt” in Hebrew rigshei ashama. Ashama is, I guess, a Hebrew word for guilt and I appreciate the call. I’m just trying to figure out if ashama really means guilt. Ashama I think really means when someone does something intentionally, like an intentional or premeditated crime, so they recognize that. There is actually an offering in the Temple which was called a korban asham, which meant an offering that was brought to repent and to heal from and repair a premeditated, criminal act.
However, even with the word ashama, the question really is, is going through a sense of guilt a legitimate part of serving G-d? (Again, I would still argue the point that even if there is a word for it in Hebrew, that the concept doesn’t really exist.)
You find the concept of teshuvah, which is repentance or return, and you find the concept of remorse, as I mentioned. You find the concept of mechila, asking for forgiveness and being forgiven and other terms that are all, if you notice, constructive. They all emphasize something positive being done. Even when you say charata, remorse, it has a positive emphasis — a sensitivity and feeling of remorse over a wrongdoing. It’s not just an emphasis on the negative.
Now that doesn’t mean that people aren’t criminals and shouldn’t be guilty of things. Clearly if you go to a court of law and there’s a guilty verdict, that word is a legitimate word: it’s basically stating that the person is guilty of what they were accused of.
But that’s not what we’re addressing here. We’re addressing the feeling and the emotional sense of guilt.
Actually, you talk about feelings, it’s been difficult to describe the emotion of guilt. What’s the difference between feeling guilty and feeling remorseful or feeling shameful? Is there a distinction?
Okay, we have Tehilla on the line.
Caller: Hi. I called before about the Hebrew words rigshei ashama, and regarding the Hebrew word and there is another parallel to that, which is nikifot matzpun, which is actually “guilty conscience,” a feeling of guilt that a person is dealing with.
Jacobson: I appreciate that. Do you know if these words are commonly used? And if so, are they used in the negative or in the positive sense?
Caller: Usually in the negative.
Jacobson: So is it ever said that it’s a healthy thing to have a guilty conscience for instance?
Caller: Not really, because if somebody wants to unload something that he carries, then he will, let’s say, want to talk about it, like, “I want to take a burden off my shoulders.” But I never heard it in a positive sense.
Jacobson: I appreciate that Tehilla. Thank you. We have our local Hebrew linguist expert, so any time I need a Hebrew word I can always call on Tehilla.
Now as far as a guilty conscience, it reminds me of a line in Yiddish. They say “aufen gonif brent dos hittel.” How do you define that? It means, the thief feels the fire burning on his head, and the literal translation is that he feels as if his hat is burning.
In other words, he’s always feeling guilty, so it’s like when someone’s edgy or shifty, the guilty party is always in a sense telling you that he’s guilty. Now there are of course people who really know how to hide that type of guilty conscience, but often, people who are truly guilty can tell you that from their behavior.
But there’s another type of guilty conscience as I mentioned earlier. Children sometimes experience, when they’re accused long enough of being guilty even though they aren’t, to feel that they’re guilty about everything. You hear about children of divorce or other children who have been hurt by adults, who blame themselves and feel that they’re guilty. It’s irrational, but there’s a predominate sense of guilt that clearly is destructive.
Let’s go to Eugene on the line.
Caller: Hi Rabbi. How are you? I think we learn about guilt when we’re little children, or at least I did. Most of our families came from Europe and they didn’t have much to eat. So then they came to this country and when they raised us as children they would always say, “Make sure you eat everything on your plate, there’s poor people around the world starving.” And they kind of made you feel guilty.
I don’t know if that’s such a negative thing. You were speaking of guilt as a negative, but in this case it really does make you think about other people who are less fortunate than you, and not to waste things, and maybe give more tzeddakah (charity) or something.
Jacobson: Well, I would agree with that, Eugene. You know, the barometer and the reality check of any type of emotion, even ones that are negative, are if it leads you to be a more constructive, more productive person.
If something from that remorse or shame leads you to be more constructive, as you put it, if it’s something that motivates you to be more gracious because you are guilty or feel a sense of shame or loss, or recognize the pains of the past, then clearly it’s a very positive feeling.
Now I was addressing the question, what happens if it’s just guilt in the name of guilt, and nothing productive comes out of it? Where people either beat themselves up or they just feel a type of shame about something that isn’t their fault because either parents have imposed the situation on them or just other shame that society imposes upon us.
Caller: I guess you’re right, it all depends on how they feel guilty. I know a lot of people who are very wealthy. It’s almost like they feel guilty because they’re so wealthy and other people are less fortunate. And they kind of have that hanging around their heads for a long time.
Jacobson: Well, a lot of people would like such guilt.
Caller: Yes I know!!
Jacobson: And if they are guilty, what are they doing about it? Are they more charitable because of it?
Caller: Well, you would hope so, but you wonder sometimes.
Jacobson: Well, you hear often that children of the Holocaust, people who are survivors, feel guilty because they survived and their families didn’t. They always feel like, “Why did I deserve it?” And to a person who hasn’t experienced it, it may even sound strange, like, why would you feel guilty? I mean, G-d saved you, the circumstances worked out that way, so why would you feel guilty? But the guilt comes because you almost feel unworthy, like, why was I better than my brothers and sisters?
Guilt touches a very deep part of a person, and I’d like to address that later, but I appreciate your comments Eugene. Thanks for the call.
So we have Stephen on the air.
Caller: Hi Rabbi, how are you this evening? In terms of guilt, I think that the caller before me stole some of my thunder (it just means that he was another intelligent guy!), but what I want to say is that inappropriate guilt serves no purpose, but I think that guilt, like you said, can sometimes keep a person from straying because they worry about how they’re going to feel afterwards.
I think of a friend of mine who is in a loveless marriage; he loves his wife but they don’t like each other very much and he’s contemplated cheating on his wife. He knows it’s the wrong thing to do and he knows that he would feel bad about it—the pain he would bring to everybody wouldn’t be worth it.
So even though the desire is there, it’s his sense of guilt perhaps that keeps him from acting on it. So I think that anything that keeps us within the normal boundaries and acts as a check and balance, and helps us consider a situation that might be dangerous or hurtful is a good thing.
Jacobson: I agree with that. That’s again another productive result. Let me ask you this, Stephen. Do you think there’s a distinction between guilt and shame?
Caller: I think that when somebody or at least when I feel guilty, it is because of a situation that I had control over and didn’t do my best at, so if the results weren’t what I would have liked, I might feel guilty that I didn’t follow through and now I’m paying the price—I don’t get the reward.
I would feel shame about being financially destitute even if it had nothing to do with me. My job was taken away, my house was washed away in a flood and I had the money packed in the floorboards.
Jacobson: That was a very visual analogy! How did you come up with that?
Caller: I don’t know. Maybe an arbitrary distinction that I make.
Jacobson: No I meant the analogy that you gave about the floorboards.
Caller: Oh, I’m just saying that if my physical life changed radically, I might be ashamed of my new condition, but it would be in an area where I didn’t have control. I think that the guilt would come from having made a decision that I knew was wrong but it was an active act. I would have something to feel guilty about because I controlled the outcome and I’m not proud of the outcome.
Jacobson: Right. Well, you’re basically describing shame as being a negative, and really not necessarily productive, just a sense, essentially, of feeling socially embarrassed.
Caller: Yes, correct.
Jacobson: Thank you. Very good points, I appreciate that. It sounded like it had some thunder to it and I appreciate your call, Stephen.
Caller: Thank you, Rabbi. I also want to share with you that I have really enjoyed your website. I’m a caller from just a couple of weeks ago. I had never heard your show before and you’ve really given me some points to ponder and I appreciate the fact that you’re such a good listener and do care about what your listeners say.
Jacobson: Thank you. And please visit and call again.
So that was a nice call. The website (www.meaningfullife.com), by the way, is a forum where you can not only read but contribute your thoughts, and we will listen and respond and create some type of meaningful dialogue in a world that really can use the synergy that comes from all of us. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have Eugene on the line.
Caller: Hello. I would just like to know what “bread of shame” is in the Talmud? Are you familiar with that?
Jacobson: Bread of shame, there’s lechem oni, which is matzah that we eat on Passover, which is often referred to as bread of the impoverished. But there’s an Aramaic term, ne’emah d’chesufah, which means “bread of shame.” I guess what you’re saying is similar to that. The reference is to unearned profits, which means when a person, for instance, gets a free gift, a free lunch as they say, and hasn’t earned it, it’s called bread of shame. People are ashamed of something they haven’t earned. And it’s actually a healthy type of shame. As the Talmud puts it, a person has more pleasure and more appreciation from one dollar that he earns on his own more than ten dollars that he receives as a gift.
So even though you can buy much more with a gift of ten dollars than you can with one, nevertheless, there’s a certain sense in a human being that we feel we want to earn what we receive, we want to feel like it was the fruit of our labor and effort.
That’s the shame that it’s referring to. Has that been helpful?
Caller: Yes, that helped. But what is it? Is it a metaphysical thing?
Jacobson: You mean, why is it that we feel that way?
Jacobson: Okay, good question. There are different answers given, but one of the main answers is that G-d created us to be productive. And the fact is that when a human being is not productive and is not really accomplished or hasn’t earned his or her right, there’s a sense that it’s not really his. So in a way, it’s one of the greatest gifts to feel that we want to earn our way through it.
So even though as children we all like to take, take and receive, and just let someone else earn on our behalf, yet there comes a point in the life of any healthy person where you just say to yourself, yes, even though I have a wealthy parent or I have someone who may provide for me, it’s very important for me to earn on my own. And that shame is actually a perfect example of healthy shame, as opposed to for instance an unhealthy shame, a destructive shame, which would be the shame of a child who has an alcoholic parent, for instance. There, the shame is not about a sense of dignity or something productive, it’s a demoralization, and not of your own behavior. So there are two factors. If you want to have the criteria, and I say this to all the listeners, if you want a litmus test of what is healthy guilt and what is unhealthy guilt, what is constructive shame and what is destructive shame, ask yourself two questions. Number one, is it due to your mistake or due to someone else’s? And number two, what effect does it have on you? Is it demoralizing or is it motivating? And if the answers to the two questions (this is a little quiz) are that it is not due to my fault and it is demoralizing, rest assured that that’s not healthy shame and guilt, it’s a destructive force that does not allow you to move on.
However, a shame or guilt that makes you feel that you are truly and objectively responsible, that you contributed to whatever it is, and in addition, it motivates you to really want to fix and repair it and say, I really want to do something to correct it, that’s a shame and a guilt that helps you grow. And that actually is a positive element.
There’s of course a third category where a person is shameless and guiltless and doesn’t feel anything. So that’s simply insensitivity and a lack of awareness.
Adam and Eve, for instance, felt ashamed after they transgressed and ate from the tree of knowledge. That was healthy shame. However, it would incorrect to describe their sin, in the collective sense, as the concept of “original sin.” In Judaism, there is no such thing as original sin. Yes, Adam and Eve transgressed, they made a mistake, it affected history, but original sin implies that one human being’s behavior dooms everyone else.
There is no such thing as universal or collective doom. There is perhaps collective responsibility, because when you see people behaving in a certain way and you are able to either stop them or at least protest it, then there’s a certain element of responsibility there. But it’s not doom. It’s not the demoralization that original sin implies.
So Adam and Eve’s eating from the tree did have an impact on history, but the attitude has to be that we as their children have to in some way, number one, take responsibility that even though they did it, it’s something connected to us because we in some way can repair it, and more importantly, it should be a motivation for growth and healing.
Interestingly, shame and guilt is all there in Genesis in the Bible, especially the story of Adam of Eve. When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, what happened afterwards? They were ashamed. The word in the Bible is “shame.” That prior to eating from the tree they were unashamed of their nakedness, and then they were ashamed of their sexuality. They suddenly recognized and were aware of their sexuality and therefore they covered themselves.
There are two elements here. First of all, the fact that they sensed shame was very healthy. The fact that earlier on they did not feel shame was simply like young, newborn children who are not self-conscious and are not aware of their own sexuality. What caused them to be aware? So Maimonides writes that it’s because their egos came into play, that they had their own agenda: that suddenly they realized that their sexuality, their interests, their desires, were their own personal interests and not connected to a higher divine cause, and that was the cause for healthy shame.
And that was the shame that caused them to cover themselves and to try to repair, to repent, to do teshuvah.
Let’s go to Liba on the line.
Caller: Hello Rabbi, how are you? I am wondering, what is the difference between guilt and conscience? Where does conscience play here?
Jacobson: Well I don’t know the exact clinical definitions, but conscience, I believe, is the root of guilt. In other words, we have guilt because we have a conscience and we have that type of sensitivity I was describing.
I would say conscience is one of the most critical elements in human dignity. For instance, do animals have a conscience? So even though there have been some tests where animals have been sensitive, animals really do not have a conscience, the reason being that they follow the script. Does a leopard feel guilty after it kills a wounded doe or whatever it is that leopards eat? Or do any animal predators feel guilty? They don’t—because that’s the way the process of nature works. On the other hand, a human being has a conscience, meaning, that because we can break the script, we can choose not to follow any script and do what we wish with our free will, so the conscience is almost like a reality check from your spirit which says to you, “You know, you’ve wandered.”
Caller: Therefore, the leopard does not feel guilty. So just as a conscience can be good or not good, so guilt can be for good or not good.
Jacobson: You took the words right out of my mouth; I couldn’t have said it better myself!
Caller: So it has a positive. And if we focus on the positive, that eliminates the negative and it can be used for good.
Jacobson: The problem is, of course, which we should address in the next half of the show, what happens when unhealthy guilt overcomes you? How do you get out of that type of situation?
Caller: Perhaps then shame can be used for a positive also, and if you feel ashamed of the guilt, you will want to eliminate the guilt to get rid of the shame.
Jacobson: Oh, that’s getting complicated. So you feel ashamed of the guilt, and what happens if you feel guilty of the shame of the guilt? Are you following? I don’t know what I’m saying either, so it doesn’t matter.
Caller: Well, in other words, I don’t see where these things have to be a negative. I see where they can promote great spiritual growth and progress in relationships—in our relationship with G-d as well as in our relationships with others if our conscience is used before we do whatever it is. In other words, for example, I like to say, “I like to taste my words before they pass my lips. That way if I have to eat them again they taste better.” If we keep in mind what we want to accomplish by what we’re about to say or do, before we do it, that’s our conscience working. And that would eliminate the guilt and the shame.
Jacobson: Very well put Liba. Thank you for the call.
Okay, Abraham, you’re on the line.
Caller: Yes. Regarding this theme, I want to share with you about the importance of guilt. In fact, it’s an absolute necessity for transformation. I published an article entitled, “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking” in a psychological journal, and one of the things that inspired me and motivated me was from the Tanya where the Rebbe [Rabbi Schneur Zalman] says that people should set aside time to make themselves the subject of self-nullification; that they should get involved in what we call guilt to bring down the ego. This is one of the things and also the idea in the Talmud of a baal teshuvah standing in a place that a tzaddik gomer cannot stand.
Jacobson: Let’s translate that for the listeners.
Caller: That someone who repents is in a holier place than a complete saint, which is very difficult to understand. Obviously a person would have to go through charata, or regret, in order to be a baal teshuvah. And you’re not going to have regret unless there’s guilt.
So I have seen many other evidences of this. Even the 12 Steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous program begins with the idea that a person has to start with the concept that he or she is totally helpless, powerless to help themselves.
So I see that in contrast to this idea, the approach to “be positive, be positive,” that positive can be very superficial. A person has to go through a very intense state of guilt and self-destruction of the ego before he or she can really go on to the idea of surrendering to a higher power to accept the malchus shamayim, to accept the rule of heaven.
Jacobson: Where was your article published?
Caller: The article was published in a journal called Unlimited Human.
Jacobson: Is it available and could you email it to me?
Caller: Yes, and it would be easier if I mailed it to you.
Jacobson: Well, that’s a good excuse for me to tell you and the listeners our mailing address. Thank you Abraham for the call. Our mailing address is The Meaningful Life Center, 788 Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, NY 11213, or you could call us at 1-800-363-2646 (1-800-3MEANING).
My thoughts particularly after listening to some of your calls, which I really appreciate, is to reiterate the two criteria to test what is constructive and what is destructive shame and guilt, and also, one, is it your fault, and two, are you demoralized by it, can you do something about it, can you repair it?
If the answer to those questions is no, then that tells you that there’s something very unhealthy about it and if you can’t get beyond it yourself, you may need help with an objective party to review why you feel guilty. If you’re not at fault you need to examine why you feel guilty if you can’t do anything about it.
Perhaps it has to do with your own self-awareness of how you see yourself, your own self-perception, your own security or insecurity; it may have to do with your childhood or other factors.
However, if your answer to either one of those questions is yes, that it is your fault, and/or you can do something about it, in other words, it can motivate you to grow and get to a greater place, then it definitely has a positive dimension to it.
It’s interesting that guilt and shame can begin on a destructive note and be transformed to something positive. For instance, take the example of unhealthy shame or guilt that I mentioned earlier: the shame children have of parents who are addictive or alcoholic or in any way abusive. You don’t want your friends to see your parents that way. And children will protect their parents, by all means, at their own expense. And the shame builds inside you: you don’t want anyone to see your father, you don’t want anyone to see your mother. It means you don’t want them to see you, and it builds a certain shame inside where you say to yourself, “If someone really knew me it would be terrible, because I’m a terrible human being.”
That type of shame is not easy to grow out of because it’s clearly an unhealthy one that has no benefits and you have to do everything possible to eradicate it.
However, if a person who has a sense of shame and guilt and in some way gets involved in helping others, let’s say helping children who are in the same situation or people who have grown up in an addictive family, and get involved in a type of therapy through helping people or being part of a support group, in a way they can transform their own painful childhood into a positive force.
But the real truth is that shame and guilt are only positive if they actually help you become a better person. I think that is very much connected to a recurrent theme on these shows about the meaningfulness of life and the significance of your soul, of your being, of your presence, that you have an inner dignity. Part of that inner dignity is a conscience that tells you when things are going wrong. Your conscience tells you, this isn’t something that resonates, it doesn’t ring true, stay away from it.
If you make a mistake, then learn from that mistake and don’t do it again. Learn how to repair. Be accountable. Accountability is one of most beautiful elements of human life. You know, people say trust is not built on perfection, trust is built on accountability.
The person you can trust is the one who is accountable, not the one who is perfect. Perfection is a panacea. People often think that if someone is perfect it will solve all their problems. But it’s being accountable, and accountability is very much linked to conscience and to the shame you feel.
Healthy shame, for instance, is the shame of feeling that you haven’t accomplished as much as you could have in your life. It’s like growing up with a best friend in school and that person really achieves the heights. He reaches admirable achievements. And you really haven’t achieved much, but you dreamt together, you played together. You meet that friend years later and you haven’t reached the potential that you could have reached, but he or she has.
There’s a healthy shame involved. Why? Because you meet that person and you say, oh, it reminds me of what I could have been or what I could have done. That’s healthy shame. Because it’s not about demoralization and it’s not an area that you can’t do anything about. It’s telling you that you’re sensitive to your greater potential.
So when you, for instance, see a competitor in business doing much better than you, and it motivates you, not to be jealous and vengeful or do anything possible to destroy that person, but if on the contrary it motivates you, that’s a healthy form of shame, a catalyst, because it motivated you to say, you know, why don’t I get off my behind and really do something to drive myself. It’s a shame that leads you to greater heights because you see broader horizons.
However, a shame that looks backwards or down and says how little I am, how little I’ve done—not in context of how much I could do—that’s a shame that is demoralizing and breaks the spirit, and just usually helps deteriorate any type of motivation.
So we’ll go to the line. Victor, you’re on the air.
Caller: Rabbi, you make a lot of sense. My question to you is, do you think that prayer, real serious prayer, when you’re alone, will directly help eliminate negative guilt and shame in your relationship with G-d?
Jacobson: Well, are you talking about a situation where you’ve hurt another person or is it a crime against G-d?
Caller: No, in a general situation. So on a supernatural, spiritual level, with your relationship with G-d, the more that you pray and the more that you ask Him to get these negative emotions away from you, (because the positive ones like you said will affect you in a positive way) will it help raise you to a higher level?
Jacobson: Definitely. Because true prayer, Victor, does two things. First of all, it helps untie knots inside of you. So unhealthy shame that is demoralizing and is holding you tightly in a tentacle becomes looser through prayer, it frees your spirit. And a second thing is that G-d can actually intervene in our lives to help free ourselves from that type of past.
I think prayer is definitely one of the methods to be used when a person is in a situation like that. But in addition to prayer, it’s vital to become involved—whether as a volunteer or otherwise—in activities that are very positive, that generate positive energy in your life, because positive energy breeds positive energy, whereas negative energy breeds demoralization, which becomes a vicious cycle that starts eating up and eroding our sprit.
So whether it’s voluntarism or prayer, being involved with people who are upbeat and positive and motivating, are all forces that help us free ourselves from these tentacles and more importantly, it helps us to become more sensitive to what we should really be ashamed of.
I’ve often seen situations, and you can look at it in your own lives and see the same, where sometimes the unhealthy shame masks the ability to be ashamed about the things that you should be ashamed of.
How often are people so consumed with their feelings of guilt that they don’t even notice that they may be hurting others. They may be ignoring others that can be helped because instead of focusing on their own interests, even their own guilt and shame, if they looked around, there may be someone right nearby who needs a word of consolation, some words of solace.
So unhealthy shame can often mask healthy shame. And prayer can free us from the weeds to allow the flower of the healthy shame and sensitivity to appear. Thank you for the call. Lester, you’re on the air.
Caller: Hi. I wanted to point out something when you were talking about the leopard grabbing the doe, when you asked if the leopard has a conscience… you really should ask if the doe has a conscience, or say a falcon grabs a pigeon, and the poor pigeon is trying to get away from the falcon. You should really ask, does the conscience in that dove, trying to save its poor life… it’s not whether the falcon has a conscience but whether the dove has some conscience in this last grasp of its life. It philosophically you could compare it really to a situation.
Jacobson: It’s a very good question. I never thought of it that way, Lester, and I appreciate it. So thank you for your call. The fact is that it’s true, if the natural balance that the falcon eats the dove and the leopard eats the doe, then why would the doe not just cooperate and go willingly to the altar, or the pigeon or the bird? That’s a good question and I guess the pigeon might say, “Listen, if you’re hungry, go find another pigeon.” So it’s interesting why one is sensitive to being eaten and the other not. On the other hand, if G-d does not allow an animal to have a conscience, He could also take away its will to struggle. But I have to think about it, and I’ll address it in a later show.
Thank you for the call. Barry, you’re on the air.
Caller: Hello. The gentleman who was just on with the doe. What I think is that the world has a system and we’re all part of that system, and those that are eaten are also a part of the system.
Jacobson: I agree. So your point is that… I don’t think he was suggesting that the leopard did a crime and we should prosecute the leopard for premeditated murder and lock it up on Riker’s Island. It would cause havoc, regardless. I think what he was trying to say is that you see that the animal does have feelings. I mean, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure what his point was, but I took it to mean that there’s a question that if the predator has no conscience, why doesn’t the victim just cooperate?
Caller: Well there’s a system the way the world works. There’s a chain with every animal. Bigger fish eat smaller fish.
Jacobson: No, I understand. Your point, Barry, is very well taken.
Caller: Everyone is part of a great plan and man is on top of the whole plan. The world was created for man, and I guess, like you mentioned before with the bread of shame, the way I studied, every soul comes down here by G-d and only seeks to do good, and it comes down here, where you see the whole picture and you’re tested to do the right thing, and you have an equal chance whether to do right or whether to do wrong.
Jacobson: Well, thank you very much Barry. That’s a very good point and a very good call. This issue of whether or not the prey is just as guilty as the predator is interesting. I don’t know why it would be guilty for getting caught, I’m not sure. Anyway, we have Sam on the line.
Caller: Good evening. Just quickly, in the Prophets, Yeshayu, Isaiah the navi, is not satisfied with the way the world is. He imagines the day where a lion and a lamb will lie together, that the lion will not devour the lamb, so there is tikkun (correction) that has to take place in this world. This is not the best of all possible worlds. Even if the Jewish people have the chutzpah to tell G-d, “G-d we want to make the world even better than the way You have it,” I think G-d is happy when we “defeat” Him in this matter. That’s point number one.
Point number two is if the child is ashamed of the father when, say, in the strong case that you mentioned when the child is young, perhaps the shame is justifiable in the child. But as the child grows older and has understanding and still is ashamed of his father, then the shame may actually be inappropriate, because now his shame is a kind of judgment of his father—and who is this son to judge anybody, even though this person happens to be living with his father, but after a certain point the child has to have compassion on his father, not shame for his father.
Also, another inappropriate case of shame would be shame that a father may have for a child if he’s not getting the grades or isn’t as good-looking as the other children are. Though it’s hard to control the emotion of shame, the father would have to control himself and put aside his emotion of shame and treat the child compassionately.
Jacobson: Yes, exactly. Thank you Sam for the call. I’m going to answer quickly because we only have a few minutes left. Shame should never be a way of masking a person’s insecurities. Shame should always be a motivating factor. It should not be connected to your ego — that you are ashamed because your child embarrassed you. You should be thinking about the welfare of your child, will the shame help the child grow, or is it just an act of self indulgence.
So Motta you’re on the air.
Caller: Hi. I just want to say that the doe is not guilty and the leopard is not guilty. The doe has fear. That’s all. It’s not a big discussion, that’s all.
Jacobson: Okay, thank you. Listen, I feel better already, less guilty and less shameful just talking about it.
These shows have been made possible by listeners such as yourselves—I’m not trying to put anyone on a guilt trip—however, I think we’re all responsible for each other. I try to bring the show here and talk about topics that are very meaningful and relevant, and address issues that are perhaps not talked about in schools and on the radio. Meaningful Life brings you these type of meaningful topics and invites you to be part of it, including in anyway that you can participate with your questions, your thoughts, your ideas, and including your financial contributions.
This show was made possible by, and I want to say a special mazal tov, congratulations, to Dina and David Reis who are celebrating the birth of their child and his bris. The new baby’s name is Yosef Reis, and may he be a source of pride to the parents and grandparents and families. In addition, we’d like to thank Dr. Fred Mindel and some of the other contributors who make these shows possible. You can help us too by calling us at 1-800-363-2646 and making your pledge.
I would also like to invite anyone in the listening audience, men and women, people from all backgrounds, whether you’re a guilty person or a non-guilty person, shameful or shameless, or neutral, to come to my Wednesday Night Class in Manhattan every Wednesday at 8:00 pm at 346 W. 89th St. at Riverside Drive. For more information you can call us at 1-800-363-2646.
So we talked about the two questions we should ask ourselves about guilt and shame to see where see stand in this area and what kind of intervention we can use to make our lives a little healthier and better to see shame as a positive catalyst in life rather than as a demoralizing noose.
And that is, number one, are we at fault, and number two, can we do something about it? Does it demoralize us or does it motivate us to grow? And on a final note, what comes to mind when you talk about collective guilt: should the entire group feel a certain sense of guilt and shame when a group is responsible for a particular crime, for example? It reminds me of a very moving story and an explanation given of one of the Chassidic Rebbes. Briefly, he would take private audiences, people would come to see him and would ask him for all kinds of advice about personal issues. Once someone came to see him, whom he spent time with, and afterwards the Rebbe asked his assistant to stop the line from continuing. In other words, he wasn’t going to take any more audiences that day. So the secretary thought, okay, he must be tired, he must want to rest. Anyway a day passes, two days pass, and he hears from behind the door how his Rebbe is crying and praying, and he could feel that the Rebbe is going through a very deep anguish.
So after a substantial amount of time passes, the Rebbe finally continues and resumes taking audiences. Later, the secretary asks the great Rebbe, “What happened?” The Rebbe said, “When a person comes in to ask me advice, I always have to find in some subtle way that same problem within my own spirit, within my own psyche. And when I repair it there then I can give him advice.
Which just shows you the sensitivity of a person. Not only was he not guilty of anything, not only did he have no reason to be ashamed, but the fact that another person suffered, he was able to find within himself a certain type of responsibility and sensitivity to the other person, that he too should feel guilty—but only to motivate him and the other person to grow.
Thank you very much. This has been Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson.