This occurred to me when I realized that my life reads like a novel, with parallel story lines, symbolism and foreshadowing. Stories seem to repeat themselves around me. Granted, human experiences are not that diverse. We often make the same mistakes and have the same successes. Similar things bring joys and sorrows; we truly are in an interdependent web. I find myself lost when the plot of my life goes onto new territory. A grudge was not new territory, if the story surrounding its inception was.
I can write about grudges in vague terms because while the origin of one is kind of a crazy, ugly story, and the origin of another a trite and banal one, the broader elements are the same. I am writing about a particular situation, but this grudge was just like all the other ones I have had.
Awhile ago, I was corresponding with a former acquaintance via email. He was describing some bad blood he had with a close family member. This was someone who repeatedly had tried to reach out to him, but he always pushed them away. He was hurt and angry with this person for a lot of reasons, and could not, did not want to, or even saw the use in forgiving them. It seemed like it was really eating away at him, and having a harmful effect on his life in other ways. I argued that he should just let it go.
I wrote, among other things,
My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. (I probed for the meaning, because I felt his phrasing was confusing. Essentially, he was arguing that if hate will eat him alive, then he would rather facilitate this than let the grudge go.)
His active resistance stunned me. On some levels, I should not have been so surprised: it is foolish to presume a world view that makes so much sense to me would be shared by others. Particularly considering that his view of the world was notoriously different than mine, and his ways of being and functioning in it were also quite dissimilar to me. The same could be said for anyone else: we are coming from different places. Even so, I remember feeling shocked that someone could, and would even want to, continue to hold onto something that was (so obviously, it seemed) causing them harm.
In my mind’s eye, he was tightly clutching ninja-stars, the sharp edges continually and deeply cutting into his hands. The defense he had developed in response to the initial wound was injuring him further. Dropping them, it seemed, would be the only way to allow healing to start. He did not see it this way. This was a part of him, the pain was a part of him. Why let that go?
Cue the irony…
He would become the person that I begrudged. In the interest of repeating story lines, we, like he and his family member, are not speaking. Perhaps the silence is for the best with his family. It certainly was, and is, for me. I suspect it is for him.
All grudges are the same. They involve expectations unmet. Maybe the expectation was help, trust, non-harming, showing up to a birthday party, recognition, keeping your city/product safe, not hurting a loved one or keeping in contact with your mother. The details do not matter for this discussion. I had an expectation. Several, in fact. The important ones were unmet.
I felt so justified in my anger. Maybe I was. Maybe I was not. A grudge’s existence is not necessarily based on any objective reality, just the emotional logic of the bearer. I do not think that any justification or lack thereof matters much these days. It is not my reasoning which is on trial here. The point is that my bitterness did not alter anything about the grudge’s origin. My indignation will not change the past.
“Hate is drinking poison, expecting the other person to die.”
There I was, clenching the ninja-stars in my fists, feeling them cutting into my flesh, but afraid to let go. It felt like this grudge was protecting me somehow, like I thought these weapons that were doing me quite a bit of harm were necessary for my safety. Protecting me from going back, protecting me from inviting further harm from these unmet expectations and the harm done to my loved ones. Meanwhile, this grudge was devouring me and digesting me ever so slowly. I cannot say I did not know better: I had given the advice I was struggling so much to take!
A book I read suggested that if you cannot forgive a person, or let go of a grudge, then release them and it to God. Thanks, self-help book. Now I need to go find God. I settled on my faith instead, and sought out some wisdom. Rev. Nate Walker refers to clutching an “ever fashionable grudge bag” in his argument of Unitarian Universalism’s need to be a saving faith through an innovative morality. OK. Lynn Cox refers to forgiveness as “The Final Form of Love”. If you are bitter, you are not really interested in love, but she makes some good points -
“Forgiveness does not mean allowing a harmful situation to continue. Forgiveness does not mean pretending that an act caused less harm than it actually did. Forgiveness does not mean continuing a relationship as if a harmful incident never happened. Relationships continue, but they are changed in the process of hurting and healing.”
In my case, the relationship “change” became “termination”. Rev. Cox goes on to argue that’s not the way to go. That throwing someone back to the universe means I am denying their humanity. Um, no. I can owe up to our human commonalities, which there were many, including my heavy contribution to fault, and decide that coexisting in the world without contact is the best for everyone. I can apologize (as I did), I can forgive (as I have been trying) and still need to keep my distance if that is what is best for me and my family. So when Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland argued that, ”Forgiveness need not result in reconciliation in which the relationship is restored,” I nodded my head.
Rev. Loadman-Copeland paraphrases Marilynne Robinson’s quote that understanding is a form of forgiveness. This makes sense, considering so many things are the result of misunderstanding. I was in a place where I knew this person well enough to get it – to give him very charitable interpretations of his actions, and I was privy to a lot of his pain. We were close. So, I can say that everything makes sense. Understanding made it more painful. Understanding does not undo the damage done.
It took me awhile to realize that the “making sense” on the path to forgiveness was a reliance on logic. Forgiveness is not a rational act. It is something you do for your health, your sanity, for the sake of the world, not because you “should” or are obligated to.
Slowly, my grip on my ninja-star-like grudge relaxed. I had help. My husband is a saint. My friends and family are loving, understanding, grace-giving people. Will and I moved to Seattle. We acquired new, more pressing problems, ever-more unrelated to this one as time passed. We learned to cope with them. We acquired new friends, new experiences, and dare I say it? New frustrations and new ways of being wronged. Fortunately, these are easier ones to forgive. Some problems got solved. Others felt more tolerable. Time went on, and it became clear that life does too. My heart began to acknowledge what my mind already knew: my white-knuckle grip on the past bleeds on my otherwise fine present. Being present became easier. I am starting to find my old self again, the one who is spiritually unencumbered and the one that feels effective and happy.
There is another piece to this, too big to fully describe here: self-forgiveness. I have a lot of culpability, and thinking of my contributions to it is painful. I described this to a Christian writer that I admire, who replied with, “Don’t you know that you have been forgiven?” She was referring to the grace of Jesus Christ. She could have been talking about the people in my life. My husband, friends, family, and so forth. Like usual, they are better people than me. My inability to forgive myself for my role has served as extra knots in rope tying this grudge against the other to me. The struggle to extend that human compassion to this other person has also been a fight to give some to myself, and my own high standards. I wonder if this is a piece of all grudges, a piece of self-blame towards one self for a failure to prevent or foresee an event, or simply wishing they had behaved better in face of it. Letting anger against the other go means that I have to cope with the anger I have towards myself.
I am a work in progress. Part of the progress is dropping the grudge, forgiving those who wrong me, and moving on in the world. Life tests you before it teaches you, and even when you knew better sometimes you still learn the hard way.
And so I learned the lesson of how heavy the weight of carrying a grudge really is, even though I already knew it.