The Morality Of Guilt | Psychology Today


Is guilt a positive trait?

There are many human character traits which we associate positively, such as kindness, patience and generosity. Likewise are there traits which we associate negatively.

Where does guilt fall?

Jewish mysticism has an unusual characterization for guilt. It says that guilt is... selfish.

Say again? Selfish? Why? Isn't it moral to feel guilty of past wrongdoings?

Nearly two millennia ago, in the mid third century, there was a great Persian king. His name was Shapur, and he was the first Persian ruler to use the term 'Shahansha' - king of kings - which was in use down to 1979. Although the Persian empire's territory had been greatly diminished by the Greeks, it still stretched from modern day Jordan to India.

Shapur's empire contained the province of Babylon, where most of the world's Jewish population resided at the time. King Shapur was once visited by two ambassadors, sent by the Babylon Jewish community. He received them with respect, even personally cutting a citrus fruit for them to eat.

The Talmud mentions an interesting occurrence that took place during this meeting. The king was clearly more respectful of one emissary, while dismissive of the other. When the second ambassador respectfully inquired of the king as to why his colleague seemed to be held in higher esteem than himself, the emperor's response surprised him. The king's response was that while the first ambassador exhibited Jewish pride, the second exhibited Jewish guilt.

For a religion such as Judaism, with an entire holiday dedicated to asking for forgiveness, along with countless other prayers year-long, selfishness seems to be an odd way to describe guilt!

The reasoning lies in the Jewish perspective on the very DNA of the universe; what really makes things tick. That DNA is positive. Very positive. The world was wired by its Maker to be a positive, peaceful and upbeat place. Filling the world with negative energy is like pouring wine into a car engine - it just won't work, and may very well bust.

Likewise, the greatest gift we can give to our fellow human being is positivity. Being positive and treating others in this way is an outright gift. A simple smile can literally change someone's day, week, year - even their entire life.

Guilt, even when well intentioned, exudes negativity. Like all negative tools we possess, sometimes they may be necessary. One cannot perform a surgery without drugs, nor maintain defense without arms - yet we acknowledge that these are negative tools, used as a last resort.

So yes, guilt is sometimes necessary. But it's an adverse tool, albeit a needed one. It is certainly not something to continuously use or keep alive. Rather, it can be, within a proper framework, acknowledged and immediately diverted to bringing about additional efforts in increasing kindness and positivity.

As Sully of Monsters Inc. so wisely discovered, 'laughter has ten times the energy of scream'. It's contagious too. And that's a contagion I'm sure everyone would be happy to receive!

Rabbi Avrohom