Having resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other guy to die.
— Malachy McCourt
A few days ago I got an email from a presumably “left wing” (I’m so tired of these inadequate labels) visitor who took exception to my demonstrated dislike of the junior Senator from New York. After suggesting that I am the unthinking, misogynistic prisoner of the patriarchy, the correspondent wrote:
[Hillary] is competitive and power hungry and you can’t stand it, but I don’t think you would ever criticize a man for behaving in the exact same way. Also, I’ve noticed that you keep taking that poison hoping she will die. I hope it doesn’t kill you.
Well…I am happy to note the writer’s assessment of Mrs. Clinton as “power hungry,” so at least we can agree on something, but I disagree that I don’t criticize men who behave the same way, and I do not hope Mrs. Clinton will die. Nor do I resent her. I believe the reader confused dislike with resentment, and they are very different things.
I know they are very different things because I have actually been struggling with resentment, recently, for the first time in my life, and I can attest to the poison-power of it.
The mild aggravation and eye-rolling impatience I have for Mrs. Clinton are nothing like the feelings and fantasies that are attached to the object of my resentment. Not even close. I do not lie awake at night simmering about her. I do not have fantasies of meeting Mrs. Clinton and landing her a facer. I have never considered calling a rather intimidating (with good reason) relation and asking him to go knock on her door and introduce himself and his little friend.
I wish Mrs. Clinton and her husband – and their minions – would take their money and go away, somewhere, and leave us all alone, but I do not wish any of them ill.
Not so, the other.
When I was little, I recall asking a priest about Jesus’ revolutionary (and counter-intuitive) command that we love everyone, even our “enemies.” I thought it was intriguing that Jesus said we could and would have “enemies,” and in my devious 9-year old brain, I figured, that meant that “enemies” were alright.
“No,” the priest said, “Jesus tells us this because he knows that in life there will always be people who hurt us, or betray us, or who we just for some reason don’t like – that’s a natural thing – so, think of ‘enemy’ in this case, as just someone you don’t especially take to, or want to be good friends with, someone you know better than to trust. When Jesus says ‘love them,’ he means, basically, “pray for them, for their good, and never wish them ill. It doesn’t mean you have to kiss them…you just can’t want to kill them.”
I found that to be an acceptable and reasonable answer – we don’t have to really love the people we don’t like, we just have to not hate them, not wish bad things for them. We have to give them the respect due all created creatures and let God do the rest.
Those instructions, it turned out, were easy to follow. My personality had always been a little on the naive side, and bashful, but my instincts had always been to take people at their word – or by how they presented themselves – until their actions told me otherwise. So, I took the good father’s advice easily, and for the next forty years was fairly content. While I am no saint and no great lover of mankind, I’ve been a basically peaceable (if impressionable) sort with a willingness to quickly forgive (and to ask forgiveness) and a reputation for never, ever holding a grudge.
The details are not especially important. The bottom line is that six months ago an injustice was perpetrated against a member of my family. Lies were told which had a negative effect on this family member, in a meaningful way.
And I discovered that while I can be easy about what someone has done to me, I am…well…quite the freaking lunatic when someone does dirt to someone I love.
Over the course of the last few months, waiting for some resolution of this situation, I have found myself doing all of those things I described above. I’ve been losing sleep, grinding my teeth, imagining violence – those face planters, that call to my distant cousin – and simply simmering and festering and yes, poisoning myself as I seethed. And the poison was affecting my physical body; at one point, I got shingles.
Other family members have been indignant and upset about the situation, and angry, and resentful here and there, but they’ve also managed to be amused by some of it, to find ironic laughter. When I told my Elder Son about one incident by this “enemy” he started laughing and said, “isn’t he just darling, though? You have to love someone that sick and obsessed.”
I was too sunk into my molasses-thick resentment to see the humor at the time.
I’ve been struggling with it. Some days I knew I was in no fit state to receive Holy Communion with all this bubbling inside me. Some days I would remind myself that “all things work to God’s purposes,” and tell myself “there is something we need to learn from this – pay attention,” but those brief attempts at reasonable faith would soon be drowned out by my rage.
What upset me more than anything is that for the first time in my life, I was actively hating someone. I’ve never hated anyone – not even people who have done me physical and spiritual harm. But I was hating this fellow. And hating him even more for “making me” hate him.
Which, of course, he could not do. No one can “make” you hate; I simply allowed hate in; I welcomed it in, gave it an honored chair and fed it. And fed it. And it was incredibly destructive and oppressive – to me, mostly – but it did nothing good for anyone who had to be around me if the subject had my head. My whole family, and a few friends, have had to endure watching me give myself over to this resentment, allowing it to have its way with me, and to own me, body and soul.
When my son Buster – who has been struggling with his own issues (because who among us does not struggle from time-to-time) went back to school for the spring semester he hugged me at the car and then whispered, “Mom, Matthew 5:46. It’s for me with mine, it’s for you with yours.”
I got home and broke out the bible and found:
For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
Matthew 5:46 is, for the Christian, where the rubber meets the road. You either believe all that stuff you say you believe, and you act accordingly, or it’s all a lot of hooey and you’re the hoo-er.
I stared at the verse for a while, read those lines preceding it and following, and I curled my lip and muttered, “but I don’t want to love this person!”
But a little voice inside said, “ah, but you don’t want to be hating and resenting anymore, it’s doing you no good, girl.”
My little voice sounds a great deal like my Auntie Lillie.
I began to pray. Not the way Christ wanted me to. It was more along the lines of, “Lord, you’re the God who is Just, who loves Justice, and this putz is getting away with a monstrous injustice…”
There was some ranting after that. For some reason I make a habit of trying the Almighty’s patience with my need to re-state the obvious ad nauseam. He seems to bear it well. Finally, sick of myself, sick of my rage, sick of my willingness to hate, I said, “help me out here, would you? Give me a word or a sign or something – anything – to pull me out of this muck and give me some peace. You promised us peace, remember? Peace beyond understanding, ‘my peace I give to you…’ Can’t you help me, down here?
I fell on my bed feeling pissed off and lost. I kept looking at Buster’s verse and remembering what a priest had told me 40 years earlier, and I felt like I was standing over an abyss, balanced upon a taut, thin wire and trying to cross to safety, and at that moment I really wondered if I would make it.
And then the phone rang, and it was my Elder Son, the perpetually pleasant, wise, gifted and laid-back firstborn whose mind routinely goes where mine cannot follow. I don’t know what he called for – I never gave him a chance to say – when he observed that I didn’t sound right I immediately treated him to serving #2376 of Mom’s Seething Resentment and Madness, and it was one serving too many.
“You know,” he sighed in his gentle way, “this thing has worn out its welcome. You’re making yourself sick over something while the object of all of this sleeps well at night. You give him every single yard; he owns you. And he may not even know he owns you, but that doesn’t matter – he still does. You’ve lost this fight because you’ve lost yourself. Even if you win, you’ve lost. He wins because he’s gone about his business while you’ve allowed your soul to rot. And this may never be resolved to your satisfaction; sometimes things are not. And that scripture verse was also right, you know.”
I listened to my son’s calm-but-firm pronouncement and knew that everything he said was correct. A hard thing to hear – a harder thing to acknowledge – that you’ve lost yourself in hate and resentment, and that the bullies of the world, whatever their issues, don’t do half the damage that you do to yourself, in your reactions, and in what you hold on to.
I had to let it go.
Elder Son said a few other things, things I needed to hear – that I had not been willing to acknowledge before – and he was right.
“You’re right,” I said to him, feeling – incredibly – with those two words the first peace I’d felt in six months, a surreal peace, a peace beyond my understanding. “You’re absolutely right. I needed to hear all of that.”
“Well, good,” he said, a little surprised at the abrupt wicking away of my abundant wrath. “What are you going to do about it?”
I sighed the surrender.
“I’m going to pray this verse for a while and then go back to being myself. And…I’m going to pray for this guy’s good, too. My heart is not in it, but I know it will be, once I start, because God’s like that. And I’m going to say ‘thank you,’ too, for these awful six months, because I guess I needed to learn something. And I’m going to say ‘thank you’ for you, too. You really helped.”
My Elder Son is a “believer” in the most casual sense of the word. He likes and believes the Christian narrative but he’s in a very cerebral place just now, and so he’s keeping all options open and rather at a distance. This is not unusual behavior in young Catholics, so I’m not especially concerned. I know that my husband and I have taught our kids to swim, so we entrust them to the Almighty Life Guard, in that respect. But he was in that instant, in the Providence of his phone call, the very voice of Christ, who scripture says “shall be peace.” Here was Emmanuel – God With Us – answering the prayer I had silently screamed up, and with perfect promptness and wisdom.
Sr. Mary Alice used to say, “pay attention to all the people speaking to you; God is trying to talk to you, through them. The Holy Spirit uses what is handy to get the message to you that you need to hear.”
I was so grateful to my son that I called him back a little later, to thank him again, for telling it to me straight. And too, I wanted to let him know what had happened.
“I know you think of these things differently than I do, right now,” I told him, “but I just wanted you to be aware of how God used you – that you were a vessel of grace.”
“Well, that’s fine,” he hummed along, a serene spirit. “I’m glad to be of use, then.”
Then I remembered something. “What was it you were calling me about, earlier, by the way? What was on your mind?”
There was a silence. I could almost hear him frowning and thinking through the phone. “Do you know,” he said, “I have absolutely no idea.”
From Compline, tonight: If you are angry, let it be without sin. The sun must not go down on your wrath; do not give the devil a chance to work on you. – Ephesians 4:26-27
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers!
For my family and friends’ sake
I will say “Peace be within you!”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.
– Psalm 122
Julie at Happy Catholic, shares a similar nudge.