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Good Guilt

by Avi Shulman

Is guilt good or bad? To help us understand guilt, let us see it as a correlation of pain.

A toothache or stomach cramp is a message saying, "We are in trouble. Correct the problem." Touch a hot stove, or allow a needle to pierce your finger, and the resulting pain is meant to indicate immediate danger.

If you could, would you want to eliminate this type of pain? Not unless you would want a small, easily remedied cavity to go unnoticed until the tooth abscessed, an infection to go untreated until it disabled an organ, or your body to be seriously hurt before you noticed.

Understood in this light, pain is a friend, a valuable warning system, a gift from the Almighty.

The intelligent response to pain is to identify its source and rectify the problem. Once this is done, given appropriate healing time, the pain should subside and disappear. It has fulfilled its mission.

If after the cause of pain had been removed the person were to seek ways to continue the pain, we would consider this a pathological problem.

Guilt is pain of the soul. It occurs when you violate your own value system. A person who believes that stealing is wrong, yet gives in to temptation, has his actions out of balance with his beliefs. Just as a needle invades the nerve endings in the finger and signals that something is amiss, the violation of a person's value system takes the form of guilt. Once he identifies and corrects the cause, after he has completed the teshuvah (repentance) process, the feeling of guilt has served its intended purpose and should subside.

The Almighty created man unique in his ability to change. Whereas every other creation is set on an unalterable track -- a cow cannot decide to give chocolate milk, nor an apple tree provide pears -- man can raise or lower his value system, and the point at which guilt is triggered.

The person who previously believed that stealing was wrong, for example, begins to associate with bad company and finally joins a gang which robs and steals. After a while, he effectively lowers his value system to the point where stealing now causes no guilt. His new, lowered guilt threshold may even lead to hurting or killing his victims.

Similarly a person can elevate his value system to the point where he believes that fooling a person, thus stealing his time, or waking a person and stealing his sleep, is wrong. By associating with righteous people, by reading inspiring stories, and learning ethical behavior, he can develop and internalize new beliefs. These will become part of his upgraded value system which will signal him if he violates them.

This is a fascinating thought. A person can, by focusing his attention and changing the material with which he feeds his mind, adjust his own values and corresponding guilt threshold! We are thus challenged to improve and refine our values.

Is guilt good or bad? The answer is yes. It is both good and bad. When used as intended, to warn us of a problem, guilt, like pain, is good. Very good, because it allows us to correct a small problem before it becomes a major one. After we correct the cause, if we still wallow in guilt, it becomes negative and self-defeating.

The Almighty created man to function physically and mentally in balance and harmony. It is up to us to use -- not abuse -- either body or soul.

Reprinted with permission from



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