Positive Vision - Day 76
Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger
Our weekly excerpt from the book "Positive Vision"
Day 76 - Feeling Like a Rasha - Bad Remorse Versus Good Remorse
Jewish guilt is a cliché; it is fodder for many a corny joke, but it certainly is no laughing matter. Without an inner conscience to motivate us to do what’s right, without a sense of guilt after we failed to do so, there would be nothing to push us to improve.
Perhaps, the greatest proof of this truism is the following two, heinous quotes uttered by one of the most despicable men to ever walk this earth, Adolf Hitler.
“Only when the human race will no longer be haunted by the consciousness of guilt, will it find the inner peace and energy to brutally cut down without hesitation the wild shoots and weeds that grow amongst it.”
“Conscience is a Jewish invention; it is a blemish like circumcision.”
This wicked individual intuitively understood that the greatest obstacle restraining his evil agenda from becoming a reality is mankind’s inclination to do what is good )a conscience(, and its feelings of regret upon failing to do so (guilt). So he made bold proclamations to discredit these basic underpinnings of civility and civilizations.
Ironically, he spoke the unvarnished truth. The consciousness of guilt is indeed that which prevents people from doing evil. And since Hashem created morality (as stated in Tehillim, You established fairness), and it is Klal Yisrael that disseminates Hashem’s ideals, we may very well be “blamed” for the presence of conscience in the world. Some aveirah!
Guilt, however, can become a force of evil.
The yetzer hara at times hijacks this most noble of human emotions - which demonstrates that we have a neshamah - and uses it to facilitate sin. Guilt can be debilitating, and thus generate more aveiros. One thing is certain: Changing a character trait is no easy thing, but if you allow yourself to sink into despondency you’re certainly doomed!
When should we embrace guilt and when should we reject it? How can we distinguish healthy guilt from harmful guilt? By having our antennae up and being sensitive to the nature of these similar but very different emotions.
The difference stems from their source, and is manifest in their results.
True remorse is productive. If you feel a strong desire to repair that which has been damaged, if you are infused with strength and determination, and invigorated with fresh energy, then you’ll know that the remorse is positive. Positive remorse certainly makes one feel bad at first, but it ultimately produces happiness, in much the same way that one experiences strong positive feelings after reconciliation.
True remorse stems from one’s mind - from a sober decision to stop and confront oneself, to consider one’s actions and courageously admit you are wrong. It requires hard work and deliberate thought and is driven by one’s understanding of his capacity for greatness: I am special. I am proud of who I am. How can I justify having done such an act?! Enough is enough! This individual values himself as a person and deems his performance of the act bad; he does not devalue himself in totality. He does not beat himself up psychologically and see himself as a loser. Instead, he assumes responsibility for what he has done and is energized to improve.
False remorse is destructive. If you have abandoned hope of ever repairing the damage of your aveiros, if you feel drained of strength and determination - in a word, “paralyzed” - then you’ll know that you are dealing with negative remorse. It sabotages your energy (in fact, sleeping more is often a telltale sign of this despondency) and leaves you with a mindset that repeating this aveirah is a foregone conclusion. It leads directly to hopelessness and depression.
This remorse stems not from a deliberate decision to consider one’s reaction, but comes on spontaneously. In fact, it has the opposite effect: It compels one to shut off his mind from fear of dealing with these uncomfortable feelings. Very often such guilt is generated by low self-esteem: This just proves that I am really worthless. How else could I have done such an act?! I may as well face the facts. I simply can’t change. It causes one to consider him- self bad, not just the act. Instead of taking responsibility for his past missteps, he sees himself as a victim of circumstance, which, of course, only reinforces the possibility of the act recurring. After all, if you were a victim the first time you committed the aveirah and your actions were beyond your control, then you cannot stop yourself from repeating the act another time. The same way it was not your fault the first time, it won’t be your fault the second time either.
In summary: Any thought that makes you want to improve comes from the yetzer tov. Any thought that weakens you and decreases your desire to grow comes from the yetzer hara.