Jewish Guilt. The Gift That Keeps On Giving.


We all know the feeling. The one that rubs us like salt in a wound, that has us doing the unhappy jig for an agglomeration of reasons. For something you did, something you think you did, something you didn’t do enough to help someone, something you’re doing better than someone else. God, I can go on forever with reasons. Comprising a list stretching into infinity. But that’s not the issue. The issue is why does this emotion exist at all?

Throughout history I imagine the topic has crossed many a great mind. Freud for starters, viewing guilt as a national phenomenon. Nietzsche, on the other hand, insisted this emotion to be unnatural. A learned state of being. “In this way, man wounds himself, this master of destruction, of self-torture.”

Torture, oh yeah. What a perfect description for such a waste of energy. An impotence, a regret that has no business in our day-to-day. Accomplished by a shaming device that weakens the spirit to ensure things stay just the way they are.

Coming from Jewish roots, I grew up believing it was something to be tolerated. Something passed from generation to generation like my grandmother’s secret recipe for Mandlebroit. Ironically, I also believed it was synonymous with child-rearing. That in order to be a good parent and have well-disciplined children, you simply had to develop this particular skill set. Little did I know then, weedling the blame-game finger at one’s young had nothing whatsoever to do with being Jewish. Just being a parent. All denominations were welcome.

It’s crazy how easily guilt finds its way to our door. And equally crazy easy how we let it in, let it capture our sense of obligation. Becoming in time a permanent fixture on the shelf of our self-esteem until something snaps inside and you finally say, “fuck it. I’ve had enough.”

For some (especially those of us with deep anxiety issues attached) it takes a lifetime to get to this point. I imagine it has something to do with age, because the older one gets the less they seem to give a shit about things that are meaningless and the opinion of others. But the fact is you do get there. You can get there. And that in itself, is a great achievement. An empowerment over yourself and those demons that rule you. A beginning, because everything has to start somewhere. Joan Didion once said, “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs.” This is where one always starts to rebuild. From within. Making the foundation once again strong. Finding the right tools, the right perspective to ensure the walls remain upright. Solid. After wading through the wreckage, deciding what we want to toss into the dumpster and what we choose to cherish, wrappers and all, that the light bulb finally comes on. A path illuminates. One which brings along a magnificent joyfulness in having the opportunity to be yourself and be okay with who that person is and the decisions you make moving forward. It’s one of those rare things I wish I could have told my younger self. That and a million other things that I suppose would have saved me from a lifetime of grief.

It’s never easy saying no. Especially to those you care about. But it’s one of those tools required. Putting yourself last comes with a hefty price. When I was married, when my children were young, I didn’t exist. My needs always came last. I was too busy doing and being everything to everyone. Caretaker. Official Nose-Wiper. Housekeeper. Expert Mac ‘n Cheese Lady. Errand Girl. And to make further compound an already tenuous relationship, when I said “I do” I unwittingly offered up my spiritual backbone for batting practice to a man who should have been on meds. But instead remained in utter denial, as did I. Why? Because I thought less of myself. Because I believed out of some distorted sense of guilt, this was the way it was supposed to be. Yes, I wrong, in a major way. But I had to figure that out for myself. And like most things in life, some lessons as painful as they may be, have to be learned to be appreciated.

It all boils down to this. You are number one. And that mantle is not an act of selfishness or defiance. Rather a declaration of self-preservation. And although I don’t live a totally guilt-free existence (who the hell does?), still encountering bouts of questioning as the situation constantly shifts, the perspective and tools I’ve gained along with years of wonderful therapy and mediation, have freed me.

The world is not a perfect place. And like Anne Lamott has so poignantly pointed out, “into every life crap will fall.” Just try and remember guilt doesn’t always have to be a part of the equation. The puppet master berating you to do those things against your will, only has the control you give it.

So I say this to you with love, cut the damn strings. Start living life on your own terms. And dance to your own tune. You’re worth it!

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