If I can’t stop feeling anger toward that person, than surely that makes me a bad person. And yet, I just can’t quite get past my resentment…
Dealing with bitterness is tricky business. I have been enormously fortunate that I have only a few instances and persons in my life that truly irk and stir me up inside. I don’t think about them often. In fact, most days should I be asked point blank, I would say I have forgiven them. But in the rare occasion that I am face to face with them, my forgiveness confidence begins to wane.
This happened recently to me. I was watching a movie with Scott – just chilling at home one evening – when a friend sent me a picture of someone that caused a great deal of pain in my past. I hadn’t seen that person for almost a decade and boom, there they were in high definition on my uber-clear iPhone 7+. My friend ran into him at an event and sneeked a picture to send me. She didn’t do it out of maliciousness but she knows my curiosity is as intense as her own. In an instance, I was sucked back in time. The unfairness of it all! The great discouragement and intense disappointment. I was suddenly there. In an instant and with a wave of bitterness as strong as the initial, first-wave impact.
My instinct was to grab myself around the throat and chastise myself for not being over it yet, a reaction that was initially very confusing. As the smoke began to clear and settle in my mind, I let myself off the hook long enough to remember that it isn’t healthy to tell yourself you must be grateful and upbeat and oh-my-word-over-it-already. I gave myself a moment to realize there are parts of that story that will never be resolved. We are allowed to feel badly about things that are perfectly legitimate to feel badly about.
A few days later, while still in this mind space of wondering about bitterness and how best to deal with it, I received the news alert on my phone that Otto Warmbier had died. You know the story… A year ago Otto was traveling with a group of students to North Korea when he decided to take home a propaganda poster that was hanging in the hotel hallway. Now first of all – this is TOTALLY something I would do. I would! I am a memorabilia addict. I love collecting things from here and there. So I get it. In North Korea, however, Warmbier was immediately detained, arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. The facts beyond that are a bit sketchy but sometime within this past year, he fell into a comatose state of not really knowing where he was or have the ability to communicate. A week ago they released him back to America and yesterday he died.
Bitterness. I immediately wondered how his parents were supposed to deal with that massive level of resentment and bitterness and angry rage toward an unjust government that treated their son so immensely unfairly.
This brought me back around to my own dealings with bitterness – albeit not at the level they had to deal with. And that’s the thing… We compare our struggles. I recently did something to my knee and it’s been a pain in the rear ever since. It takes me a second to stand up on it with any strength. However my mind reminds me of the people who lost limbs at the Boston Marathon Bombing. UGH! So let’s agree, firstly, to not compare our bitternesses and struggles, okay? Let’s not assign levels of trauma to our individual pains.
But I’m still left with the question of what do I do with this messy, unresolved issue? There are a handful of them in my life that I simply don’t have a nice tidy bow I can wrap them up in and call it The End.
“Ironically”…isn’t it always the way?!…I am currently reading Anne Lamott’s latest book, Hallelujah Anyway. The main theme of the book is mercy. She describes mercy simply as radical kindness. My initial reaction to that was to roll my eyes and assign it with a teenage-angst, ‘Whatever!’ Is she going to tell me to forgive and forget? Is she going to tell me to treat those that have wronged me with an inordinate amount of kindness? Cause I’m not sure I can really do that in all cases. No. I’m certain I cannot. And yet I know that psychologically we are the ones who suffer the most when we hang on to bitterness and anger. We are the ones that end up tied to chains and living a very tight and clenched up life.
So excuse me sir; where would you like for me to put this bitterness??!
Lamott suggests that when you are lost in your own gerbil-wheel mind and your thoughts are spinning out of control with anger and worry, that is the time when you do the simple, basal things. You give up your seat on the bus. You tell a stranger how cute their shoes are. Lamott always suggests flirting with old people. Scott and I were recently in a grocery market looking for salsa. We passed a 20-something girl holding a bag of chips while reading the back label. She would look at the bag and then at the other bags in front of her. Finally Scott leaned in and said, “You will LOVE those! They are SO good.” She snapped out of her little bubble of concentration and smiled. “Really??”, she asked. I added the fact that you can even convince yourself they are healthier than regular ol’ potato chips since they’re air popped. She laughed, having made up her mind. “Then I’ll buy two bags!” as she reached for the cheese flavor that Scott suggested and happily moved on down the aisle.
All the air around us shifted. She was happy to have received some first-hand knowledge and we felt good about offering our advice that helped her make a final decision. All of it was done with a light and fun undertone. It wasn’t a life-changing moment, but it did offer an endorphin boost and we all were breathing deeper from it.
Perhaps for people like myself – those people that aren’t quick to skim over the whole thing and move on – maybe it’s best that we show radical kindness to others first. Certainly to ourselves first of all. I would wager that most all situations of bitterness involve many layers and degrees of hurt. The trick is to sort through those layers to determine which ones are in your power to change. Often times, there is within the bitterness a degree of shame for ourselves. Why did I not see what was happening sooner? Why did I allow that person to talk to me that way? Why didn’t I do this or why did I say that? Those are layers we can work on. Those layers need the soothing nature of mercy to be extend to them in heaping doses. Inevitably, once those self-flagellation issues have been worked through, there will still remain parts of the situation that are out of our control. So what do we do with those?
I imagine the Japanese internment camps or Syrian refugee camps where large groups of ousted people are thrown together in close quarters. Food and water is of utmost concern. Protection from the elements. Safety from the oppressor. But also, the need to support and encourage one another also emerges. Adults telling stories to the scared children. Women helping each other carry water and men lending a helping hand to other families. I believe that is where I can lay my bitterness. Not at the feet of the one who I feel has gravely hurt and wronged me but by re-channeling it into helping others with their bitterness. When I can help you work through an issue, I am simultaneously and unknowingly rubbing salve on my own. We are a common pool of humanity with issues as numbered as there are people. A collective show of mercy and love and forgiveness is stronger than the bitterness we each individually endure separately. We are to honor our brokenness. Not cover it up and act like the chipped pieces of ourselves don’t exist. But to approach each other, chipped and worn, helping each other to figure out Our Stuff.
You remember the crazy Seinfeld episode of George and the marble rye? I love marble rye bread! I recently read that contrary to popular belief it is not a marbled mixture of rye and pumpernickel bread but instead, a mixture of two different types of rye. Either way – I’m a fan. You and me and them – we are marbled together into one loaf of humanity. We are in this thing together. So if you are having trouble letting go of that one time when… and I am having trouble letting go of that one time when… then refocusing our energies into something completely different may be the answer. It won’t solve the injustice we felt. But it will help smooth out the jagged edges of it. Instead of desperately trying to find the perfect ribbon to wrap it all up in and call it Done, perhaps letting it sit up there on the top shelf of the closet is okay. It’s dusty up there. The oxygen level is almost nil. It won’t be pretty and we won’t parade it out to our house guests, but we don’t have to dwell on it either. Or fix it. Or do anything with it. We can also stop reprimanding ourselves because we haven’t bathed it in radical kindness. Let’s just leave it there. On the top, dusty shelf in the closet and actively pursue the everyday moments when we can help someone pick out cheesy puffcorn and make an old person feel young again. One day we’ll sell the house and The Thing will be pushed so far back on the shelf we’ll not see it and move on without it.
It might not happen tomorrow. But in the meantime, let’s listen a little closer to our internment camp neighbors. They need our help. And we, desperately need to give it…