One of the things that’s so toxic about a true resentment is its ability to conceal itself from the resenter. It’s like a spiritual tapeworm that takes up residence in the victim’s moral metabolism and just gorges itself with judgements, anger, self-justification, and other forms of selfishness and self-centeredness that cause us so much unhappiness.
Once, at a weekly Step meeting, I happened to glance across the room and see an old adversary. We weren’t really enemies, but we’d had a serious misunderstanding years before. I felt a trust had been breached and I’d never been able to bring myself to really let it go.
This resentment caused me much pain. Although I was the aggrieved party (to my way of thinking), I felt guilty not being able to forgive and forget. People said to pray for him. I tried and it worked for a while. But then I would see him at a meeting and the old anger would well up from some deep recess inside me.
Telling people that I’m unhappy with their behavior is very scary for me, but once, in desperation, I asked the man to meet and talk with me so I could express my anger. That meeting did help. And it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. He didn’t really seem receptive to the idea that I was trying to get closer to him through honest communication. He appeared defensive and aggressive, and was not forthcoming on the specifics of my complaint that he had breached a good faith friendship.
For a while after this, I felt some relief. I could see him and listen to him speak and I wasn’t too agitated. All the same I was frustrated by the fact that he didn’t want to share himself with me on a man-to-man basis. But why did it bother me so much? I knew from what AA had taught me that if anyone is renting that much space in my head, it’s me who has the problem.
But that wasn’t helping me with my problem. Innumerable times I had said to myself: if only I could let go of this bad feeling. If only I could really forgive this person. Then someone shed light on the notion of forgiveness that helped me.
When I decide to forgive someone, I’m setting myself up for a trap. Forgiveness implies that I’m still aggrieved but that I’m taking a morally superior posture in letting the “wrongdoer” off the hook out of the goodness of my heart. However, that position keeps the resentment validated under the mask of moral superiority.
Experience shows me that when I feel upset by what seems like an injustice from someone else, what works is for me to stay close to that feeling of hurt. That feeling has a message in it if I’m willing to pay attention to it.
I learned early to avoid my feelings by trying to make others responsible for how I felt. Because some adults failed to do their job in raising me, I blamed all adults after that and made myself a victim of adult neglect. That way I could maintain an extended childhood for as long as I wanted.
At one time I thought the solution to anger was to go to the person involved and straighten things out. But this is another form of making someone else responsible for my feelings. I think now that I have to go first to the true source of my discomfort, which is within me. Then I may or may not go to that other person; but either way I’m not expecting that other person to fix me. The cure lies not in his acceptance of me, but mine of him. Once I have that, there’s nothing he can do for or to me that will make any difference.
What I saw at the Step meeting that night was a tired, sad-looking man whom I’d known for many years. Somehow he looked like an old warrior who had weathered a lifetime of storms and had come to a place of surrender. No doubt, he had defects. Who doesn’t? And he had suffered because of them. If he was unaware of his faults and so unable to see them, he was in that sense no different from the rest of us. We are all like that at times, and as the “Twelve and Twelve” says, even the best of us sometimes get very far off the beam.
So if forgiving doesn’t work as a permanent solution to resentment, maybe accepting does.
I am reminded of the peace I was finally able to make with my parents. All my growing-up years I had resented them for what I thought was bad behavior on their part. As the years passed, I started to see them as people. They had had parents who did them harm. And their parents in turn had parents. It went all the way back to Adam and Eve, if that’s where it started.
When I had suffered enough from my negativity and self-righteousness, I started to see this guy as just one of us. He had his own baggage. He didn’t need my forgiveness. He was suffering from his own defects, just as we all do. Virtue is its own reward, and defects of character are a kind of crucifixion. How much effort I’ve put in over my years trying to perfect the role of the victim.
So, for that evening anyway, I felt I had come to a place of rest with my agitated spirit. If little twinges of irritability still plague me, I will know in the future that I have more accepting to do. And I will leave the forgiveness to those who are better able to handle it.
I spoke to the gentleman about things that didn’t matter much, since we’re never going to have much serious communication. This man has rendered prodigies of service to AA and has had many difficulties to overcome or accept. If I don’t judge him, I won’t have to forgive him over and over for as long as we know each other.