Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Responsibility vs. Guilt

The previous post touched on the futility of blame, whether directed towards others or to oneself.  More thinking and talking about self-blame, or guilt/shame, made me realize that the concept of responsibility is muddled with the concept of guilt.

Now, certainly there is a connection between the two:  If someone is guilty, we hold them responsible for their actions.  This connection, however, is not an identity.  Guilt is in the past, while responsibility is in the present/future.  When a tragedy happens, it is natural to look for someone to blame.  However, blaming leaves all parties disempowered to move forward and find solutions.  Self-blame feels morally superior, but is ultimately just as disempowering.  Assuming guilt gives rise to feelings of shame, and then avoidance of the situation.  On rare occasions shame can be an impetus to action, but this is the exception, not the rule.

Moreover, the person taking responsibility is frequently NOT the "guilty" party.  If a small child makes a mess, s/he is unlikely to "take responsibility" for cleaning up.  The parent will take the initiative to say "Uh oh, made a mess, time to clean up!" as well as to involve the child in the cleanup in age-appropriate ways.  A good parent will use this as an opportunity not just to take responsibility for cleaning up, but for teaching the child.  As the child grows, s/he ideally learns to take on more of this responsibility independently.  But the child cleaning up alongside the parent is not an example of taking responsibility, but learning responsibility.  A guilt-based response might be a spanking or other punishment for making the mess, which is not as effective.

Jewish tradition gives us one full day a year to indulge in guilt.  Yom Kippur is one of the most widely observed holidays in Judaism.  The daily prayers, however, focus on positive actions in our everyday lives: gratitude, charity, productiveness, justice and so on.  Even the section focusing on "transgressors" emphasizes that we pray for their reformation, not punishment.

In what areas of your life are guilt and shame holding you back from taking positive action?

In what areas of your life are you ready and willing to take responsibility?

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