September 23, 2004
Guilty of Being Too Guilty
Yom Kippur reminds me of the time I spent in couples counseling with a serious boyfriend. My boyfriend believed he could be cruel or invasive or dishonest, but as long as he copped to his "sins" once a week, he'd be absolved (especially if he used bogus touchy-feely phrases like "I'm sorry you feel that way," "I validate your experience," and "I respect your boundaries").
"Sweetie," he said at an early session. "I know we talked about forgiveness, and I have something to tell you."
Then he took a deep cleansing breath and smiled sheepishly: "I've been reading your journals."
"You what?" I replied incredulously.
"Remember the four F's of forgiveness," my boyfriend cautioned, basking in his expiation.
"I'll give you four F's!" I screamed -- and believe me, they were not the four F's of forgiveness.
For my boyfriend, going to couples therapy became his version of Yom Kippur. If I got angry at him for, say, "forgetting" to give me a message from my ex, he'd hold my hand and reply sanctimoniously, "But at least I'm admitting it. Isn't that the most important thing?"
No. It wasn't. You can't erase a misdeed -- or your guilt -- simply by "admitting it" and asking for forgiveness. It's far more complicated than that.
So here's my High Holiday confession: I don't believe in Yom Kippur. And I'm not asking for forgiveness.
It's not that I don't feel guilt -- I do. But my therapist -- who's Jewish -- says this is a problem. He thinks I feel too guilty. Each week I sit across from him, whip out my journal and enumerate my so-called sins. While worshippers from Brentwood to Jerusalem literally beat themselves with their fists each September in shul, I metaphorically beat myself up each Thursday in a Santa Monica office suite.
I feel guilty for avoiding a coworker going through a breakup because whenever I say, "How are you?" he replies with a 15-minute sob story and all I have time for is "Good, and you?" Or for buying a friend's 4-year-old a toy labeled "6 to adult" because it was on sale, then explaining, "This way, he'll have something to grow into." Or for giving a guest at my house orange juice from concentrate and saving the fresh-squeezed juice for myself.
As a child, I remember dutifully writing out my "sins list" each Yom Kippur, the way my Christian friends wrote out their "Santa lists" three months later. My list was always longer. There was so much to feel guilty for: Saying you hate your brother when he won't let you listen to his new Peter Frampton album. Lying to your parents about what time you went to bed at a sleepover. Wishing that your clueless teacher would go the hospital for a few weeks so that you could have a cool substitute instead.
While making that list, I became a conflicted combination of self-righteousness and self-flagellation. Why did I need to ask God's forgiveness for some minor slip-ups, while my mostly considerate behavior went unacknowledged -- where was that holiday? And why did I promise not to do these things the next year, when it was nearly impossible for a normal girl not to feel, think and act out the "sins" I'd supposedly committed? Meantime, I felt guilty for questioning my guilt. Yet not once did I atone by fasting -- in my mind, putting on an itchy dress, sitting through mind-numbingly boring services and wondering how I came to be such a bad person were punishment enough. Almost. At 11 I became anorexic and went on a perpetual fast, but I'd recovered by the time Yom Kippur came around -- and actually felt guilty that I hadn't timed my anorexia more appropriately.
Extreme? Maybe. But guilt is in my bloodlines. Whether we're raised Orthodox or "culturally Jewish," most Jews grow up like mini-schizophrenics, with multiple voices in our heads that continue to haunt us into adulthood: "Rachel's mom says her daughter writes from camp every day -- and my daughter, she could be dead and I wouldn't know!" Or "Sure, you can wait to have grandchildren -- we just might not be around to meet them." And "How nice of you to acknowledge my birthday -- your brother called three hours ago."
Then there's that special brand of Jewish not-quite-enough guilt: You're educated, kind, do weekly volunteer work with kids. But what about that time that you didn't visit Uncle Merle in the hospital? He's having his chest opened like a chicken, and you couldn't take half an hour out of your busy day before the MCAT exam?
Eventually, I lost interest in Yom Kippur, but I never lost that sense of guilt. I've spent years trying to give myself room to fail, to be less of a perfectionist and more self-forgiving. It's not that I want to shirk responsibility, or grant myself carte blanche to misbehave. It's about having realistic expectations. At least, that's what my therapist says.
In a twisted way, I've always envied people who don't live under a cloud of guilt. In college I briefly considered becoming a lawyer because I was fascinated by the murderers and rapists who -- knowing full well what atrocities they'd committed -- could stand up in front of a courtroom and say with a straight face, "Not guilty, your honor."
Or take the guy who broke up with my friend but asked to continue sleeping with her -- and feels no compunction. Everyone's guilt (and chutzpah) barometer is different. Just look at Ken Lay, or the shameless contestants on the reality show "Wife Swap."
I wish I could say that my neurotic fixation with guilt has kept me from typing e-mails to my friends while distractedly mumbling "Uh-huh" on the phone with my mother, or from nearly having an affair while in a committed relationship. It hasn't. But how does beating our chests in front of God once a year help us or those we've hurt? I've tried looking at God as literary trope for our conscience, but in what Fitzgerald famously called the "3 a.m. of the soul," we have only ourselves to answer to. God doesn't need to take Ambien to sleep at night. We mere mortals do.
Which is why I have such a problem with Yom Kippur. While my friends with office jobs are disappointed that it falls on Saturday this year (no extra day off), I'm thrilled that it won't disrupt my work week. Each year I try to ignore the holiday, but it's not so easy.
The other day I was explaining this to my friend Lynn in New York. She's married to a very wise rabbi who can quote "The Simpsons" as fluently as the Talmud, so I got him on the phone and asked how a guilt addict might approach this ritualized annual guilt-fest.
"Isn't Yom Kippur counterproductive?" I asked her husband, Rabbi David Adelson. "I mean, so many Jews feel burdened by guilt all year round. It's like making a culture of drug addicts celebrate Crack Day."
Lynn is a neurotic writer like me, so David knew what he was dealing with.
"It's not a holiday about guilt," he explained. "The Jewish attitude is that you reflect on your life, see what needs work, and incorporate those lessons into your future."
"Fair enough," I said. "But what do we do with the crippling guilt that this reflection brings up?"
"Well, you can redirect that reflection in a healthy way," he replied. "If what you've done in the past hasn't worked for you, try something new. Yom Kippur isn't so much about guilt as it is about reorienting. "
His insight was so simple that it blew my mind: reorient. That's exactly what my shrink has been noodging me to do for years. So this Yom Kippur, I've decided to "reorient": I'm going to try to spend the entire day without feeling any guilt. Instead of my usual guilt-fest, I'll go on a 24-hour guilt fast (and yes, I'll still eat). I'm not sure how God will feel about this, but at least my therapist will be proud.
Besides, if I start to feel guilty about not feeling guilty, I can always repent next Yom Kippur.
Lori Gottlieb, a commentator for NPR, is author of the memoir "Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self" (Simon and Schuster, 2000). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.