I am always questioning guilt: not the law and order duh duh duh guilt, but the guilt that people feel or are made to feel because they did, or didn’t do something. I consider guilt a useless emotion- it rarely does anyone any good.

So now that you know my feelings about guilt, I’ll tell you about a quote (oh no- I’m doing a quote again…)

I’m reading for book club, The Empathy Diaries by Sherry Turkle. It’s a memoir of a Jewish girl growing up in Brooklyn post WWII.

I’m going to give you what she writes, taken from her memories of Rabbi Wagner, who taught Sunday School when she was young: (I believe this was about 1958 when Sherry was 10ish)

Jews, the rabbi explained to his round eyed charges in the basement, lived in a kind of silence about their experience of persecution. Because if you confront gentiles about their crimes against Jews, these gentiles will turn on you. This was not a good thing, he said, but as a survivor, he understood it. You could not live a life among gentiles if you made them feel guilty every day

Sherry Turkle

This stood out to me as I was reading the book.

Thoughts?

61 thoughts on “Guilty

  1. The Rabbi’s comments sound biased. Anti-semitism is as rampant now as it was when Sherry was a young girl. It’s just not as out in the open. However, the Rabbi’s comments only serve to promote the problem rather than healing it. I’m Jewish, by the way.

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    1. I didn’t know how to interpret this. My book club doesn’t meet till the end of the month (mainly Jewish women in my book club) but it stuck out at me and I keep chewing on it. This is a recently published book (March 21)

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    2. But David, if this took place in the 1950’s his sentiments are understandable. My father’s French family all died in Auschwitz, I grew up in the 1950’s with neighbors who bore blue numbers burned into their flesh. Jews were afraid that it could happen again. And they were cautious. My Rabbi in the late 1950’s was a relatively young man but he was very protective of the children. We were told that we must carry on for all those who died. We were the new generation. And so my generation fought for equality for everyone and we protested together. All races, all faiths. We stood hand in hand, sang, demonstrated, and we did accomplish quite a lot. But the generation before us? They lived through the unspeakable. My father was one of the few Jewish officers in the United State Army. He never talked about the war. But til the Day he died he kept trying to find survivors in Paris. He asked that my sister and I continue the search. Two years ago through ancestry we discovered that a cousin of his hid and survived. But all his uncles, aunts, and cousins were murdered in Auschwitz. So you see, I understand why this Rabbi wanted to protect the children he was teaching. He was afraid.

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  2. I can’t speak to the quote, but here is how I ended my thoughts on guilt in a recent post – Guilt can be a good thing in the right situation. Overwhelming guilt in situations where it is not warranted is a problem and can keep you from enjoying life.

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  3. There is a difference between guilt and shame.

    If we have done something that we know we shouldn’t have, then our conscience will allow us to experience ‘guilt’.
    Feeling ‘shame’, however, if we have already repented of a wrong action, does no good. 🤗

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  4. Guilt forces us to acknowledge wrongdoing. That’s a good thing because otherwise we’d take no personal responsibility for our wrongs. Guilt SHOULD propel us to take action. Right the wrong. Apologize. Compensate. Whatever is necessary. However, REMAINING in a state of guilt…Letting it hover over us like a dark cloud…Keeping us locked in regrets. THAT isn’t healthy and serves no good purpose for either side.

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  5. To me in brings forward a feeling of defense. Are ‘all gentiles’ guilty of persecuting Jews? It goes further – when certain people describe some offensive thing some man did to them and others jump on that and say ‘all men are like this’ are you allowed in today’s society, to say ‘but not all men are like this?’ (social media won’t let you)

    It’s kind of maddening.

    The rabbi is right though. The quote is accurate in that context he’s referencing, in my humble opinion.

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    1. Excellent example of showing how grouping doesn’t get us anywhere, to persecute those who didn’t do anything is wrong. I’m still chewing on the quote. She mentions it more than once in the book, so you know this is something that guided her so to speak….

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    2. “Writer of Words” i agree with you in some ways. You can absolutely not blame “All” of any group. Plus, This man was speaking from the frame of reference of a Jewish leader a little more than a decade after the Holocaust. The wounds were still raw. The horrors still waking nightmares among many of his congregation. We do not know how many members of his family died in concentration camps. We do not know what kind of bigotry he experienced in his lifetime. And yet he was aware that you can’t constantly guilt any group of people without them turning a deaf ear. By today’s standards we would call his words weak. But for a man of his time they were wise. My grandfather was the only one in his family who left Paris to come to America. Therefore, during Wwll all his brothers, sisters and their families were round up, deported to Auschwitz, and killed by the Nazis. (Only one survived). Is it any wonder that American Jews of that time were still afraid, silent, or incredibly angry? All who came from Europe had relatives who died at the hands of Hitler. His advice showed incite and wisdom for his time. The next generation, ( mine) protested for equality and fought for change. But we had not endured the horrors of that War. We cannot judge his words.
      I agree with your assessment.

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      1. I agree. You said it better than I was thinking.

        My parents were taken in by a Jewish couple when mom was pregnant with me. They were at Dachau during the war. Rose, the lady of the home which my parents rented a basement from, was 14 and her husband in his 30s when they returned to their village. No one was left so they married and cane to Canada. She told mom horrible stories…

        The kindness they expressed to the people around them, gentiles mostly, despite their horrid experience, is phenomenal.

        These people are wiser than anyone I know .

        And to take a quote in context of its time is crucial, as you pointed out. Thank you for making it clear.

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  6. I wouldn’t say I’m anti-guilt – I believe all emotions serve an important function somewhere along the line. I think the problem – like all emotions – is our relationship to it. Many of which stem from the way we were raised – parents who often shame their children while refusing to ever acknowledge any wrongdoing or mistakes themselves. For that reason we grow up either clinging to shame to the point that it cripples us, or we flat out refuse to acknowledge it even when we were clearly in the wrong and should apologise/make amends. Once wrongs have been righted the shame needs to be let go. Forgiveness from the other side is very important too. I think the Rabbi makes an astute point about the dangers of shaming other people. Look at how shaming people about not wearing masks turned out. We are a society who loves to say the right thing but not do it. I believe we need to become one that does the right thing with no need to say it. Thanks LA – you got me thinking deep with that one!

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  7. One of my favorite teachers in high school once told me that no one can make you feel guilty, that you have to choose to accept that guilt to feel it. It is something that has stuck with me over the years and I often go back and rethink all the different perspectives and impacts of that statement, because it is so profoundly true.

    In this case I see the statement as addressing the situation that when people are constantly reminded of their failures, implied or factual, it is difficult to to continue to choose not to pick up and own that guilt. Then people also don’t deal well with that feeling and tend to lash out at the source of why they feel that way (or any number of other negative reactions).

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      1. Sadly, it is one of those things that is so ingrained that it requires constant work and awareness. Even then, it will sneak up in unexpected ways and places.

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  8. Random thoughts: Where do conscience and regret fall on the guilt spectrum? Trying to make people feel guilty I consider a waste of time, and injures only the one who’s blaming, not their intended guilty person. But I have to admit I still feel guilty when a cop car passes me with its lights and bells on. Even if I’m driving close to the speed limit now, I know there have been times when I wasn’t…
    Sherry Turkle’s quote was from 1958, only 13 years after the war ended. I can understand why Holocaust survivors and the families of those lost might still be angry.

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    1. That is a good question…where do conscience and regret fall on the guilt spectrum…how often is guilt inner directed, or driven from outside…

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  9. I agree with what the author is saying, and here’s why:

    I teach a diversity class (meant to introduce/explain to future teachers their role in understanding diversity in the U.S. public school system). In it, I discuss white privilege and white supremacy (waaaay before 2020, not because of 2020).

    Anywho, over the years, I’ve had to learn ways to discuss these terms without making the white students in front of me feel guilty, because initially what I found is just saying the words or teaching about how some white people in history did things elicits guilt (from white people) and then they shut down.

    So, I think terms, systems, and history have to be taught and discussed, but sometimes it is important to find a way to kind of meet people where they are, so they don’t shut down.

    I hope I didn’t go off on a tangent 😉

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    1. Not a tangent at all. I’m still wrapping my head around this quote especially as she repeats it in the book but from a different perspective. I think this was an underlying thought for her and I’m considering how it affected her

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    2. Kathy that is so true. Guilt affects those with a heart and a conscience. As an elementary school teacher I taught 4th and 5th grade. In 5th I taught America History. While many teachers and even text books tried to underplay the Civil War, I couldn’t do that. History is history. During February and March ( Black History month and Women’s History month) I did a special focus on those areas . I wrote grants to get biographies on important Female and people of color who were not in the mainstream-textbooks yet had an impact on this country. I even had books on female spies for both the north and the south and black spies during the civil war. None of these people were in our text books. The children were amazed at how many People of color and women helped during the civil war. Anyhow, I was passionate about teaching the truth. But invariably because they were kids I had to approach it gently because I’d have children crying. The black children had heard these stories before. They knew about injustice. But many of white kids hadn’t . Every year I’d have at least one white child crying and apologizing for being white like the slave owners. And i had to make them all understand this was not anyone in the class’s fault. I realized that thankfully these kids are growing up accepting appreciating each other so they were horrified by the real history. history. Plus Some years I’d have a child cry saying He heard his great grandfather had slaves. Then they’d break down and cry. It’s a tough reality for them to face. Yet, the truth needs to be told. Just like the boys who were astonished that girls weren’t allowed to go to school or learn to read in certain places. Reality is an eye opener.

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      1. I’ve never thought about it that way Lesley…”Guilt affects those with a heart and a conscience.” This is true. I think I want to take it a step further and add that because many of us haven’t been taught how to feel or that it’s okay to have emotion, hearing information that elicits feeling can be challenging, because we don’t know what to do with the emotion. So, it’s probably best (which I’m almost certain you probably did) to also include some type of activity that helps people/students process.

        I also have to comment on what you said about Black students knowing about injustice. Most Black people I know are taught from childhood about all manners of things, so I’m not surprised. It’s a matter of survival.

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      2. Yes, Kathy. It’s really wonderful how the Black community has instilled pride, history, and respect in their children. I think growing up in a Jewish community right after World War II it was very similar. We were taught our past because we knew we needed to be on high alert in the present. But to always look towards a better future. When one’s people have been brutalized, you protect your offspring by not only giving them pride in their heritage, but making them understand the brave souls who came before them. Yes, survival is key for minorities. And we all do it the best way we know how.
        Good point that many of us haven’t been taught ( or allowed ) how to feel or express emotions. And yes, I often did improvisational activities followed by essays, which were shared in regard to emotions. That’s the beauty of working with youngsters. They are so ready to feel. To learn. You can open minds easily by showing them injustice vs kindness. Having children imagine what it would be like to wake up one day and told they were going to the auction block to be sold was an activity and writing lesson. The story of a child ripped away from his or her family.I had them write a story putting themselves in the place of a child living as a slave. We as a class brainstormed what might have happened, how they might feel using a plethora of descriptive words etc. Beautiful caring stories were always written. But more importantly, the children came to understand the depth of what it meant to grow up as a slave and never feel security. They understood how cruel and wrong prejudice was. And what they might do to survive.

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  10. I went back over that quote to pick it apart a bit. The rabbi said that some Jews remained silent about their persecution. But it was because they were living among non-Jews. The problem was that if they talked about it it would imply their neighbors were somehow complicit in the deeds. That would certainly be unfair to those neighbors, but I am not so sure the neighbors would see themselves as guilty of anything re: the Holocaust. However, if the rabbi was speaking of persecution in New York, not Europe, then that’s a different matter. Either way, I agree with him that they should speak up and not be silent. Silence in that case then becomes complicity. Expose the wrong, but do it in a productive way.

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      1. Oh I understand it. It was a common feeling during my childhood based strictly on fear. And The reason why many Jews were afraid to assimilate or trust others. My generation didn’t understand that way of thinking and pretty much broke the cycle. But, I vividly remember the fear and this way of thinking. I remember having heated debates with my parents trying to explain that their views could equally be viewed as bigoted. They didn’t get that concept. Their argument was how could the victims of bigotry be bigots? We have a different way of thinking today. We are more enlightened because we have lived a more enlightened life. Silence is wrong, yes. But I understand their terror. I came home one day in kindergarten and overheard my neighbor in the kitchen crying telling my mom some horrible stories about experiments the Nazis did to her during the war. Horrifying for a small child to overhear and understand why the pretty lady who lived behind us couldn’t have children. I think I became a fighter that day. But my heart broke for those survivors. We cannot judge their trauma. And while I personally hated Jewish guilt trips. I understood why, when they felt helpless, it was the only way they felt they could fight back and gain control.

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      2. I know. I’m fascinated by everything surrounding it. FYI…you might like this book. The author is about your age, a psychologist sociologist…it’s got some interesting things to think about and perspectives…

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  11. There are all sorts of ways to make people feel guilty and media or attention is often the best way. We need to stop pointing fingers and look at ourselves and why we have a need to call others out. Or why some of us have this need and others just observe, note, and do better.

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  12. I am always reminding of Anne Frank’s words, “Look Peter the sky” and suddenly I am impressed by those who think of the present. At that moment, she was looking at the sky and thinking of all the possibilities. Unfortunately, it did not come to be for her. I was chosen to act her part in a high school play. The director saw me as idealistic. I would like to think I am the same but a little more pragmatic. ‘Players gonna play…it is what it is.’ All we can change is ourselves and those perhaps we come in contact with.

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  13. This made me think about forgiveness; how it needs to be absolute. If a person says they forgive but brings up the “crime, betrayal, mistake, whatever” on a regular basis then the relationship can never heal. It is a like a wound, that is never allowed to heal because the scab is pulled off over and over before it can. After a while the body stops trying to heal.

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  14. I think this sentiment was very prevalent during the 1950’s. The horror of the Holocaust hung over the heads of Jewish communities. There was still a great deal of fear after losing 6 million. I grew up in neighborhoods where half my community had blue numbers on their arms. My father’s entire Paris family was killed in Auschwitz . (except for one survivor.) There was still significant antisemitism in America. So is it any wonder that this rabbi was fearful. Or cautious?
    During the 1940’s. It was so bad that my mother, whose last name was Freiberg, after graduating high school, had to say she was German in order to get a job. Because in Cleveland, Ohio there were numerous signs put in windows saying they would not hire Jews. She needed to work and said Her name was German. Then she was immediately hired. During WWII she was a secretary in a Police Station and by then they knew she was Jewish. Because Germans became the enemy, not Jews. However before that everything was restricted to Jews. In fact in 1960 when my family moved to Florida there were hotels we could not even go into because they did not allow Jews. Public pools we couldn’t swim in! Antisemitism was everywhere. So I understand this fear and desire to keep the peace and be safe. My generation protested for change. I proudly announced my background. But, you see I grew up unafraid. I never worried that I would be attacked or killed because I was Jewish. So I was not afraid to be courageous. However, in today’s world with antisemitism abounding, I do worry about my grandchildren. I now u der stand the fear my parents and grandparents felt.

    In regards to guilt. You cannot make people who hate minorities feel guilt. They have no sense of empathy or understanding for others so why would they feel guilty? . Sociopaths do not feel guilt. Do you think Hitler gave a damn? He wasn’t guilty. Do you think Trump gave a hoot about Pence when he egged his supporters on to kill Pence and Pelosi? People like that don’t care. Terrorists have no sense of guilt because they have no feelings for others.

    I do believe that to this day many Jews still hide under the radar. And they should stand up for themselves much more than they currently do. But not using guilt. However I understand why many are afraid to do so. Because all over the world antisemitism is rising again and They have seen their loved ones die again and again simply because of their faith and/ or heritage. Bullies like a scapegoat. And eventually it always seems to come down to the Jews. So no, I don’t fault a Rabbi in 1958 for trying to protect his flock. He wanted Judaism to survive. And it was barely a decade since it was almost wiped from the earth. His words were of his time.

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  15. I’m not sure we can apply that quote to today’s context. Every context is different, and context matters. However….When we are unable to share our truth, we will continue to carry it around, well, forever. It is important to speak about these things openly and honestly. Yet, I also think we must remember that shame and blame will not get us anywhere as a society. We need to atone for historical atrocities, talk about them openly, and move us all forward. Shaming and blaming is a vicious never ending circle.

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  16. 🙄Hmm really interesting you describe guilt an emotion that rarely does anyone any good……… I would add guilt can be emotionally destructive where families are concerned, something that’s been on my mind quite a bit recently. Being made to feel guilty by someone I can handle, feeling guilty because a know I could and should do more can be heartbreaking. I’d be interested to hear you elaborate one day.

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  17. I think we have to remember and discuss the past so we don’t repeat the atrocities! When I think of how Eichmann applied his intellect to the creation of death chambers it makes me sick. Think of what a world it could be if we used our intelligence for the good of society? We now have the ability to alter our genes and I fear how this will be used in ways that will harm others instead of benefit the world? Just a few ramblings, I’m still chewing on the quote. C

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    1. Genetically manufactured children. Yup. I want to show people Frankenstein and remind them that that was literally what hitler was trying to do. Just because it’s science doesn’t mean it’s good, nor that in that particular case we should be following the science. If everyone is 6 foot five and athletic, only a certain amount are making the team anyway…people will still lose out….plus…which characteristics will be considered undesirable? Don’t get me started on this…..

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  18. I can’t really comment on the quote, but I think contemplating the consequence of a guilty conscience can be a motivating factor to avoid wrongdoing. However, the relentless guilt that we feel AFTER we’ve done something we regret often does more harm than good. If we can’t change what’s been done, why waste time feeling guilty? Learn from the mistake and move on. 🤷🏽‍♀️

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  19. There’s probably a better word to use than “guilt” to express the desired sentiment of gentiles vis-a-vis Jews, at this or nearly any other time in world history. I don’t know what the word would be but I liken it to the empathy that I (and many other Jews I know) feel for other (more visible esp based on the color of their skin) minorities. The variety of people I’ve seen involved in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations display the result I would want to see based on the other word I can’t come up with. I guess the feeling is more than empathy and the result has been in some ways more than action. I don’t know, though, what form I would like to see the resolution of this process take. In many (though not all) European countries, Jews have received some sort of financial reparations. I believe something similar has held true with Japanese Americans who were displaced during WWII. In my own mind, I don’t or can’t compare the history of people of color here in the US now to those groups. I don’t know why that is so. I also don’t know how the losses they have suffered could or should be compensated. I guess I’m leaving that up to the optimistic hope I have in the next generations.

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