The Exodus:5 Project
You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me Exodus 20:5
Guilt – the gift that keeps on giving.
There are, of course, two kinds of guilt. When a crime or transgression has been committed, the responsibility for doing something wrong is some legal form of guilt, the opposite of innocence. However, when a person squirms under the oppression of conscience, sometimes without cause, the feeling is some psychological form of guilt.
Being found guilty generally comes with consequences that can be quantified – reparations, incarceration, restitution or other penalties. But often the only quantifiable consequences of feeling guilty are bills for therapy.
I used to deal with a lot of guilty people when I served as a pulpit rabbi. They fell into each of the two categories, but rarely both. People who were objectively guilty of crime or transgression frequently had what they considered to be an exonerating explanation, ranging from “I didn’t do it” to “I was misunderstood/set up/a victim of circumstances.” I couldn’t do much for those folks other than listen. Those who hoped for validation from me were always disappointed – the best I could do was be non-committal. To those who were lying to themselves and trying out their fabrications on me, the best I could offer was an appreciation of their frustration. I almost never had a set of facts that allowed me to be an honest broker.
But I did find words from one such individual that helped me with all the others. He had been found out in a secret that yanked out the foundations of his life. He said to me, “Did I have a secret? Yes. Does everybody have a secret? At least one.”
On the other hand, I often had some success offering a healing notion to those who felt guilty. The most profound and usual example of guiltiness was the surviving loved one – spouse, child, friend – who held him- or herself responsible for the death they were grieving. Some of them came to see me soon after a loss, others carried the guilt through life, even as they were blessed to see a third and fourth generation.
This kind of guilt was attached to “if-only.” If only I had insisted on seeing a doctor sooner. If only I had decided to stay home that night instead of going out. If only I had recognized the cry for help. If only I hadn’t been so selfish. The variations on the theme are infinite, but they all come down to the same thing.
When a loss occurs, especially by death, our careful tending of our lives is shattered. We have lost control, and whatever else we grieve, we are also bereaved of control. Better an assumption of responsibility that explains why things went so wrong than an acknowledgment that so much in life is beyond our control. If I had been more attentive, more skilled, less self-involved, smarter, less lazy, more loving…then the inevitable might not have occurred or, at least, have been postponed.
There are three possible explanations for this kind of guilt. The first is an exaggerated sense of self. People who arrogate to themselves a sense of authority do not like to be reminded of how limited their actual power is. I gently urge them not to look for reaffirmation by exercising control over others to the third and fourth generation in order to compensate.
The second is a profound sense of loss. The hole that has opened in their hearts makes these folks try to fill it as rapidly as possible. By grabbing from other places in their emotional landscape, they feel they can fill in the gap. I try to guide them to a gardening metaphor – if you try to fill a hole from the material already in your yard, you create other holes in its place that may be empty to the third and fourth generation.
But the third is most hopeful. Sometimes, maybe even most times, the cause of these feelings is faith. A sense of belief in the rightness and justice of the world is so deeply ingrained in so many of us that we refuse to be disappointed. We accept a burden beyond our capability in order to preserve the notion of goodness and benevolence on the part of God or the cosmos in terms we select for ourselves. To such dear and desperate people, I try to offer the reassurance of our people’s legacy. Guilt may be persistent – to the third and fourth generation – but compassion is more so: to the thousandth. If they will just allow themselves comfort from the true object of faith, the Holy One of Blessed Name, they will start the clock on a thousand generations of compassion all over again. And their faith (and others’) can be restored.