Thoughts from the Sukkah 2019/5780 Day 1

I have had a lot of focus in the past few months on the difference between guilt and shame and it seemed the perfect focus for the High Holy Days. I thought I would continue it in my ponderings this year from the comfort of my sukkah.

So here I sit and ponder the difference between guilt and shame. Because there doesn’t seem to be a difference in Scripture and when you read the writings from the Rabbi’s. But when you read the meanings of what is being discussed a very distinct difference emerges in our modern language.

View from my Sukkah
This is the beautiful view I have as I sit and ponder the meaning of life

It turns out what is translated as ‘shame’ is more akin to guilt but a little more than we might mean in our casual usage. It’s more like ‘guilt’ is the state of being guilty and ‘shame’ is the feeling that naturally accompanies knowing you did something wrong. It’s that feeling of regret – that awareness that you should have done differently that leads to a conviction to do differently next time. I think this is why there are no sacrifices for intentional sins . . . . in order to commit intentional sins you have to feel no guilt at all about what you’re doing and no regret. You knew it was wrong ahead of time and you made the choice to do it. It’s where we get sayings like “have you no shame?”

“Guilt is a good thing when it’s your conscious being aware of the damage you’ve done and driving the choice to make changes in your life and do differently going forward. “

Crystal Lutton

I made a point in parenting each of my children to highlight that feeling of guilt and use it to help develop empathy and teach repentance. Turns out it takes some years for a child to develop empathy – the awareness that others have feelings and they can impact them. If you’re paying attention, though, you see that lightbulb come on. You see that healthy shame hit them like a ton of bricks and turn their countenance downcast.

When I would see this I would take them aside and sit with them for a bit. Quietly, peacefully, non-judgmentally. I would validate their feelings. “I see you feel bad about how that went down.” Wait for their response – verbal or not. I would describe their feeling . . . “Does it feel like there’s a darkness on your heart that is heavy and sad? Does it make you want to slink away and not be seen?” Usually they would say yes, or add their own description for me. I would name their feeling. “That is guilt. It’s healthy. It means you know you did something wrong. God teaches us how to get rid of that feeling and it’s not always easy but it’s worth it.” I would teach, “When you feel that guilt you go to the person that you wronged and you own it. ‘I did X and it was wrong.’ Then you take responsibility for it. ‘I’m sorry.’ Then you commit to not doing it again. ‘I won’t do that again and I want the chance to earn back your trust.'” This moves you through repentance and into reconciliation and is a necessary step to really heal any damage you did.

Turns out the process is the same whether you do something big or something little so I took those opportunities when things were little to let them practice this. It’s a much harder lesson to learn when you get bigger. It’s also important to model and when I would realise that something I’d said or done had wounded my precious ones in any way I would step up and do the hard work myself.

Because when we talk about shame we’re talking about something different from the natural feeling that accompanies guilt. Somehow in our modern world we’ve managed to misunderstand this so terribly that we’ve created a type of shame that goes into a person and defines them as shameful. We’ve taken that dark heavy feeling in your heart you feel when you do something wrong and through punishment we have driven it deeper until it becomes the essence of their self awareness.

When we talk about shame today we’re talking about that feeling of worthlessness that overcomes us when we do something wrong – something simple, usually. It causes us to not be able to take correction or criticism in relationships or on the job. We no longer operate in that place of, “Oh, that was wrong, I feel badly about it and won’t do it again. Let me go take responsibility.” Instead we operate from a place of, “I am wrong, I always mess up. I hope no-one sees me for the horrible person I really am.”

The good news if you currently live in shame is that you can change this. You are more than what you do. Who you are is worthy. Learned behaviors can be unlearned and new behaviors can be learned. This is what I’m thinking about this week and what I want to talk about. I hope you’ll join me.

Speak Your Mind