Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Antidote for the Poison of Resentment

"Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

- Malachy McCourt

First time I saw that written on a scrap of paper and held to the refrigerator with a magnet, it startled me a little. I immediately thought, “Hell yeah! That rings true.” Anyone of us who ever harbored resentment in our heart toward another person knows full well it hurt us far more than it hurt the target.

But it took mulling McCourt’s quote for a couple weeks before I realized there are two ways to look at it – two lessons to be learned. Embracing one without the other is half a lesson learned.

The first way to see it: Somebody did you wrong, but don’t let your anger & hurt consume or define you.

We’ve all seen magazine articles, facebook posts, and self-help books and blogs with lists that give encouragement to people in times of emotional distress. The lists have titles like, “Rebuilding a New You,” or “Finding Strength in Hard Times.” For short-hand of what you'll find on such lists, sing a few bars of Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 hit, “I Will Survive.”

The general themes follow my initial gut reaction to McCourt’s quote: It’s not your fault. Somebody did you wrong. You’re strong enough to get over it. Rise above.

I read the entire 20+ point list about, “Finding Strength . . .” and it was enlightening, self-affirming, encouraging. But it left me with a nagging shadow of unease. What you never find on those lists, and what you won’t find in Gloria Gaynor’s song is a line that says, “The person that done me wrong might have, in part, done me wrong because I deserved it.” Instead the message is always self-affirming. But sometimes, that’s not all we need.

In my day job I’m a Realtor. I sometimes think of my sales career this way: “I’m always asking the pretty girl to dance, and she says no a lot.”

I do sometimes feel hurt by people who don’t choose me as their Realtor. But as much as possible I try not to go there. Seems like wasted time. Instead I look in the mirror and ask myself what I can do to make sure they say yes next time. I can’t change them. I can only change me. Assuming they’re mistaken and I’m righteous won’t get me the listing or the sale next time.

As often as not, when I do that, I find legitimate reasons why they didn’t choose me. It’s disappointing to face those things, but how else can I get better and thrive in my job?

In J. R. Moehringer’s memoir, The Tender Bar, he wrote, “While I fear that we’re drawn to what abandons us, and to what seems most likely to abandon us, in the end I believe we’re defined by what embraces us.”

True, we are all a little like electricity – we follow the path of least resistance. It’s a lot easier, and less painful. Turning away from abandonment and running toward an embrace is comforting. But facing the abandonment, and its cause has to be done sooner or later, or we’re doomed to sing “I Will Survive” again sometime in the future, needing that comforting ointment of justification over and over.

Which led me to the other way to look at McCourt’s quote about resentment: You have work to do to make yourself different. Stop blaming the other person for at least a moment and look at yourself. The poison you drink resenting them rather than facing your part in the conflict will only make your journey of personal awareness harder. Or impossible. Or teach you the wrong lesson.

I’ve come to recognize that sometimes when it feels personal, when it feels like somebody did something intentionally to hurt me, they were simply disagreeing with my fantasy or my image of reality or my expectations about the future. Many of those fantasies, images and expectations were of my own making, and I projected them upon the other person largely by myself. When they didn’t live up to them, I blamed them, not me. Sometimes.

In Notes From Hampstead, Elias Canetti wrote, “Slumbering in every human being lies an infinity of possibilities, which one must not arouse in vain. For it is terrible when the whole man resonates with echoes and echoes, none becoming a real voice.”

We don’t want our shared possibilities to be vapor-like echoes, we want them to be solid. When somebody arouses those shared possibilities in vain – beware the impending resentment.

"Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

As freeing and transcendent as accepting that statement feels to anyone who has ever harbored resentment and felt it erode their own soul more than it ever hurt the target, I’m thinking there’s another step to take on the way to an even more useful understanding:

Accept that while you’re resenting someone else, they may very well be resenting you. And you both may have very valid reasons. And in doing so, you’ve both been drinking poison, waiting for each other to die, each feeling justified in your personal victimhood.

Yes, in relationships, there are at times true users and abusers, but more times than not I think there are two people who share blame for their mutual failures. But neither can force the other to face their failures, we each can only face our own.

That’s the surest antidote for the poison of resentment I can think of.

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