Monday, September 6, 2010

How Good Do We Have to Be? Part 2- Guilt and Shame

Does God really expect perfection from a fallible creation? And if God doesn't expect perfection why do we collectively strive for it? Even though it's irrational we all feel as if we're expected to achieve perfection and as a result we expect it from others. In chapter 3 of How Good Do We Have to Be? Kushner tackles the issue of guilt and shame, two words which is commonly used interchangeably for feeling bad about ourselves. But why do we place so much pressure on ourselves? Why is perfection necessary in an imperfect world? And what can we do to relieve the immense pressure of perfection?

Rabbi Kushner on guilt and shame.
"Psychologist and anthropologists see them as different emotions. Basically they see guilt as feeling bad for what you have done or not done, while shame is feeling bad for who you are, measured against some standard of perfection or acceptability. The distinction is crucial, because we can atone for the things we have done more easily than we can change who we are."
Taken to the extreme, guilt and shame sucks the marrow out of life, they are not completely useless emotions but are necessary in our evolutionary growth as complex social creatures. So how do we cure shame and guilt which is commonplace in our daily lives? Kushner suggests that religion should have been the cure and not the cause as it has been steered by religious spokesman. Religion was meant to connect one to the other and all to the Divine. From my personal experience as a churchgoer, I've heard 10 sermons guilting the congregation to repent for every 1 sermon on the immense unconditional love of God. It seems to me that if the Church, or any other religious community, is to be a place of healing and mending of broken hearts it should contain less damnation and more acceptance. Kushner shares his accounts of everyday people approaching him after public talks and interviews who pull him aside to tell him of their religious experiences which often happen outside the sanctuary and within support groups like AA, which offer shared weakness instead of shared strength. These support groups are made of equally broken and suffering people who support and trust one another because they understand and recognized our shared fallibility, our shared brokenness which is intrinsic to being human. To embrace our humanity is to embrace our brokenness, our inevitability to make mistakes. One of my favorite lines which summarizes God's transcendent love for mankind reads, "God condemns the sin but loves the person who did it too much to brand him a sinner".

We should feel guilty for some things, but only for things we have control over anything else would be needless self-punishment. Our irrational guilt really comes from the feeling that we have more influence than we really do over people and events. We can no more control the weather than we can stop someone from committing suicide. Oh, we can try, but someone bent on committing suicide will find a way to do it regardless of whatever we say or do. The best we can do is let them know they are truly loved for who they are, and if their suicidal thoughts are based on feelings of being unloved hopefully our words may do some good.

The chapter wrapped up rather oddly, or at least I failed to understand his closing statements (I am human, you know). Kushner ends chapter 3 with a remedy for irrational guilt: counterbalance it with an random act of compassion and kindness. Maybe I'm thinking too hard or maybe I don't understand it because it's an irrational act, it's not suppose to make sense! Maybe an intentional random act of thoughtfulness and charity is suppose to help us realize our irrational emotions. Of course religion may not be for everyone, but Kushner states that religion done right should alleviate guilt not increase it. The irrational rituals of religion should reacquaint us with our better nature, helping us to realize that sometimes we can do bad things (and own up to them) but we are also capable of much good. We should walk away with feelings of forgiveness not just from our fellow man and God, but from ourselves.

Part 1: A Story of Emergence
Part 2: Guilt and Shame
Part 3: The Cycle of Guilt
Part 4: The Wholeness We Seek
Part 5: Is There Enough Love for Everyone
Part 6: Final Thoughts

1 comment:

Don said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

Post a Comment