I have two ideas which I want to discuss; on the surface, they don’t seem to be connected, yet I believe if we take a deeper look from a slightly different angle, the connection is undeniable.
First let’s look at the difference between shame and guilt. The message we take from shame is “I am bad, I am a liar” while guilt, on the other hand, is “I have done something wrong, I have lied.” It’s important that we note the distinction between the person being rotten or the action being rotten because when the action is rotten, we can make amends and we can course correct, yet when we, ourselves are rotten, there is nothing we can do to correct that.
In Judaism, one of the prayers said every morning states, “My God, the soul you placed in me is holy.” The exact wording is important; it’s not was holy or will be holy, rather it is holy. This is specifically intended to teach us the distinction between shame and guilt. Shame wants to tell us that every day isn’t a new day and that we don’t have a choice, rather we are whom we are, with all of our defects and we have no ability to change, so let’s just accept whatever the lie is that our mind tells us. Guilt, on the other hand, shows up and says, “You see that you are holy today, you are good, and you are worthy just because, and still it’s important that you feel badly about the actions that you have done wrong, so that you are motivated to clean them up instead of stewing in them and letting them define you.”
This leads to my other thought, which is why does God give us commandments which are contradictory of God’s desire for us? God desires that we be free and have freedom of choice, yet God allows for slavery under certain conditions. Now, those conditions are pretty stringent and the commandments are very specific on how kindly and generously we must treat a slave. For example, if we only have one good meal or one good pillow, those must first go to the slave prior to our own use. Yet if God doesn’t want us to have slavery at all, why didn’t God simply abolish it and forbid it no matter what?
I think the answer is that God understands and knows human nature. God knows that we need to be guided to the truth and if we are just forbidden instead of given leeway, the human condition is such that we would tell ourselves “we are bad and we might as well not try to be better.” We would make it about shame instead of guilt. On the other hand, if we are permitted—even if under very narrow guidelines—we will become aware of how wrong the behavior is, regret it, and change it without telling ourselves that we are inherently bad or wrong.
This week, please remind yourself that you aren’t wrong and there is nothing inherently bad about you, rather it’s your actions that you may want or need to change. This is how we combat shame and begin to live in the solution.