Guilt is a common way to get others moving. Often, our own self-guilt is what drives what we do. While guilt can produce immediate results, in the long wrong it greatly diminishes us and others.
Tonight we’re going to be talking about guilt. Guilt. It’s what so many Jewish homes are filled with. It must be a fantastic thing. Who wasn’t raised with a healthy dose of guilt? I can’t believe it. You mean you didn’t? How can you? And on and on all of these phrases go which are so natural to our ears and maybe even to your mouths because we’ve heard them so many times.
And the reason why guilt is so popular is for a very good reason, it really works. It motivates people. It gets a very quick result. You give someone guilt, they feel bad, they have a conscious and they respond. You get the results that you want and that’s exactly why it is so popular.
And, in fact, guilt has turned into, very often, a distorted form of goodness that an individual can feel when they’re feeling guilty, they actually can feel that I am a good person because of the fact that I have a sense of guilt. It almost turns into a virtue. It shows that I’m sensitive to what’s right and what’s wrong, at least I feel guilty. There are a lot of people who could care less about what they’ve done or what they didn’t do, et cetera, et cetera.
In fact, some people literally glorify guilt, where guilt becomes an act of holiness. Good people should feel guilty. Holy people feel very guilty when they do something wrong. People who are not holy, who are not sensitive to good things and to G-dly things, they can care less, they’re indifferent.
And so guilt not only is rampant, it has also been glorified. And I have to tell you that it took me a very long time to say with confidence the words I’m about to tell you and that is that guilt is wrong. Guilt is destructive. Guilt is unhealthy and motivating people with guilt is not good.
It took me a long time to be able to say this because of the confusion that I had with what guilt was. And this is even — being uncomfortable saying this even though the greatest influences on my life write about the negative effects that guilt has on our lives.
You see, guilt is definitely effective, we all know that it can be effective. But here is the result of guilt: When someone is doing something out of guilt, why are they really doing it? They are not doing it on their own volition. They are not owning the choice that they’re making. They’re doing it because there is an outside influence that is coercing them to do it.
Now, it’s not bad to do a good thing, even though we on our own may not feel up to it but we are doing it because we know it’s right. But when we are coerced into it through a negative form, that is something that is actually destructive, not constructive. Because what happens is that long-term, even though it does produce effects short-term, long-term it is not effective at all. Because whenever our relationship with something is through a negative emotional state, what happens? We always look at that thing in a negative light and we want to run from it. It doesn’t bring us closer to it, it takes us further from it.
And so it’s one of those things where we may have won the battle by using guilt to get someone to do something or by using guilt to get ourselves to do something, but, boy, we have not won the war. Because that’s going to catch up with us and our relationship with this good thing that we just did is going to be distanced because we are using something negative to bring us towards it. And this is very important to understand.
When we use negative approaches to get people to do the right thing, in the long run it hurts. It hurts the person. And here is the very worst part of guilt. The very worst part of guilt is that the most important thing that a person needs in order to function strongly, powerfully, vitally in life is a healthy emotional state. It’s like a human being needing oxygen. Imagine if, G-d forbid, the air someone was breathing was low on oxygen. That will have an enormous impact on everything going on in his body. That’s the exact same way with our emotional state. When our emotional state is brought down, then we function on a very low level. We’re too emotionally weak to stand up and be the person that G-d created us to be.
If we feel guilty because of things that we’ve done, what does that guilt do? It may get us to do the right thing out of guilt, but what it actually does is it deflates us. It lowers us. It lowers our emotional state. And when it lowers our emotional state, it weakens it and ultimately it’s going to hurt us in other areas.
Now, the reason why guilt does this to us, it lowers us, because what we are doing is we are defining ourselves by what we have done wrong. So when we do something wrong, we feel bad because we say, I am not a good person because I did this. We define ourselves by it. That’s simply not true. I am still the very same person I was before I did it. I did something that wasn’t good but I have not become what I have done.
Think of it this way: Brilliant analogy of a snake bite. Imagine a snake, G-d forbid, biting someone and the person dying from that bite. What actually killed the person? Well, interestingly enough, it’s not the bite that kills the person, it’s the poison that kills the person. The bite just hurts. It’s that there’s poison that comes along with that bite and that’s what kills the person. When I do something wrong, that’s the bite; when I feel guilty about it, that’s the poison. And that is what really destroys us.
If we do things which are wrong, we have to find constructive ways to ensure that we don’t do that again. But if we start feeling guilty, it destroys us.
Here is some words I’m going to read to you that the Baal Shem Tov wrote. He writes, v’zehu kelal gadol b’avodas haBoreh yisbarach, this is a tremendous rule, a principle in the service of our blessed Creator. Sheyizaher mayatzvus kol mah sheyuchal, that one should be wary, stay far away from a depressed or negative mood as much as he is able.
Why does the Baal Shem Tov write this? Because whenever we are in a negative state of mind, it only brings on further negativity.
Now, I’m not giving a free pass on the things that we do wrong. Not at all. We must find a constructive response to the things that we do wrong. We must introspect and say, How can I prevent myself from doing this again or how can I get myself to do what I should have done? But if we feel bad about it and we lower our emotional state, then it’s not going to turn out to be very constructive in the long-term.
That’s the reason why I always say that the first thing we do after we come home at 10 o’clock at night and pull out the pint of ice cream and take a spoon of ice cream, the first thing we do after that first bite of ice cream is what? We take another spoon. Because right after the first spoon our evil inclination, our animal soul creeps up and says, Oh, you gave in, didn’t you? And the moment we hear that, what happens? We feel low about ourselves and we say, Well, I already gave in, I might as well have another spoon. And the second spoon leads into a third and a fourth. But if we don’t have a feeling of guilt after the first spoon, we can actually have the strength to stop ourselves at that point.
Success in life is about knowing how to fail. That’s what we’re talking about. When we feel guilty, we do not know how to fail. We know how to stay in failure, which means that we don’t fail again.
Failures, people who are failures are actually people who fail once. Successes, people who are successes fail a thousand times because they can get up after they fail. And they can get up after they fail because they don’t put themselves into a state of guilt and they don’t put themselves into a negative emotional state.
Remember, how many times you failed before you learned how to walk? Repeat that process. So I fell, I’m not a failure. I don’t define myself by the fact that I failed. I know that that was something that happened but that’s not who I am.