Beware the enemy that lurks beneath the surface of our conscious selves
AT AA MEETINGS, resentment is a popular topic of discussion. Everyone seems to suffer from it, and everyone agrees that it’s bad. Many of us get to relate little resentful anecdotes to the tune of understanding laughter, and though we often carry our resentment right back home with us, it is with the comfortable assurance that most of our friends are toting the same load, so why worry?
Actually, we are not so far wrong. Minor resentments, of Sunday drivers, overloud TV programs blasting from a neighbor’s window, rude salesclerks, and the like, are part of the human condition, like ants at picnics–and of hardly more concern. They won’t get us drunk.
Neither, for that matter, will more serious forms of resentment get us drunk–as long as we are committed to sobriety. I’m awfully tired of the school of thought that says, “Better watch that resentment, gal, or you’ll get drunk.” It simply hands anyone who wants to cop out on sobriety a beautiful excuse for doing it. Resentment won’t get you drunk–you will get yourself drunk and use resentment as a rationale.
Conscious resentment is not, I think, a serious threat; the overblown ego of the alcoholic is quite capable of carrying–and enjoying–a large chip on the shoulder for quite some time. When the load gets heavy enough to hurt, most of us, with the help of AA, are able to drop it.
I was in the latter happy state for quite some time. I adored resentment discussions because I could honestly say, with obnoxious complacency, that I had pretty well dropped my load of resentment. If people bugged me, after a brief flare of anger I was able to shrug and go on to the next thing. A good quick bout of anger in the face of something that threatens us is a natural animal response to danger. After all, what do we have those adrenal glands for? It is only when anger goes sour–often, I think, through not being expressed–that it becomes a problem. Then, red and inflamed and virulent, it is absorbed into the subconscious, where it sluggishly spreads like an undetected cancer. Then it is a threat, not necessarily to sobriety, but to the growth of the entire organism.
Unconscious resentment is a hidden assassin.
As I said, I thought I had conquered resentment. Then, at a meeting one night, the leader said, “Let’s discuss resentment. . .against people. . .and against situations.”
My jaw must have dropped. Against situations? Could that be called resentment? Of course it could! What’s more, during the last seven months, when I had been touting myself as resentment-free, I had been nursing a king-sized resentment against the city in which I lived. I didn’t just resent it–I hated it! I refused to find anything good about it. I told anyone who would listen (usually local residents, so you can see how popular that made me) how and why I detested their hometown. I wrote to fortunate friends in other localities about my loathsome situation. My teeth were practically down to the gumline from being ground. And I had honestly believed that I didn’t have a resentment!
By then, I had moved to another town, so I don’t know whether my new insight would have been sufficient to counter my resentment of my former home. It has been valuable here, though. Like all places, this one is not perfect, either, but now I can shrug and dismiss the imperfections, because I don’t want to nurture them. It isn’t fun to hate, and it’s totally ineffectual. While there is a very remote possibility that in the course of resenting one person I might be able to force a change in him, quite clearly I lack the power to change all the local residents, real-estate prices, the distance to the nearest large city, and so on. So I make it a point to ignore these inconveniences. After all, I could find them or others like them anywhere if I wanted to.
Instead, I look for things to love: the mock duel of palm fronds, with light glinting off their swordlike tips and the rat-a-tatting click of their wind-tossed thrust and parry; huge clouds thrown up like ramparts against the sun; the rose and gold calligraphy of sunset; and the star-pierced night, when the moon floats in the heavens like a great white flower and fallen petals of its light drift on the warm, dark sea. There are so many things to love.
It would be harder, I think, to find as many good things in a dreary, underpaid job–another situation that causes deep resentment–but there would be some. As nothing in life is perfect, so nothing in life is totally bad. If we search, we can always find things to love, and love crowds out resentment.
There are a thousand situations that cause unconscious resentment, and all of them hang over you like yellow smog above a city, obscuring you, making you ugly to the beholder, and obscuring the brilliance and beauty and sparkle of life around you. All of them are things that can’t be changed and are sometimes difficult to accept when we become aware of them. But they can be taken out into the light, examined, and finally dismissed as part of the inexplicable but existing polarity of negative and positive that is life.
Having found things to love in my own situation, having dismissed those I could not love or accept, I heaved a sigh of relief and once more crossed out resentment as a current problem. Then I attended another AA discussion group, and again resentment was the topic. The usual half-sheepish resentment stories went their rounds, and I was listening idly (since I had graduated from resentment) when Jim spoke.
“I don’t have many resentments, I guess,” he said apologetically, “except against myself.”
Again something clicked into place for me. Resentment against myself? Yes!–at my laziness, my lack of determination, my self-indulgence, my growing waistline, my lack of self-confidence–good heavens, sometimes I had nothing but resentment against myself! I resented myself when I suffered from self-pity, hated myself when I felt depressed, despised myself when I was too aggressive, loathed myself for being too cowardly. Why, I was boiling over with resentment, all unknowing. I was resenting myself–and I was resenting God. Why hadn’t He seen fit to make me perfect instead of cluttering me up with these multiple imperfections that make me merely human?
Unconscious resentment, the hidden assassin, is as “cunning, baffling, powerful,” and dangerous to my growth as alcohol. If I am unwilling to accept my human frailty, then I am forgetting that failure is my membership card in the human race, that my aim must be growth, not perfection, and that part of growth is compassion, understanding, and forgiveness–toward oneself as well as others.
And I thought I had graduated from the problem of resentment! Now I know that I will never graduate, that always I will have to be alert to the danger of refusing to accept myself as I am and to love myself as I am. I had made a start, but only that. I had begun to accept people and situations as they were, had stuck a wary toe into willingness to love the good and dismiss the bad. Now I would have to extend this love and this tolerance inward and come to terms with myself before the hidden assassin would finally be rendered harmless.
And if there is no final victory? Well, I will have to accept that, too, accept the fact that, for reasons outside my knowledge, I lack the strength or ability or weapons to conquer this enemy. But I will know his face and I will be wary, and I will fight with whatever strength and wisdom are measured out to me. In defeat, I will know that all I have of courage and gallantry was invested in the battle. Perhaps I will even accept and forgive my failure. And that is enough.