The Joys of Nursing a Grudge
Sure, you could give it up and move on...but that might ruin the fun
Not long ago, I wrote an essay in a British magazine about turning 50. The basic premise was how blissful life had become – how unencumbered and light – now that I’m too old to give a damn. How I toss off criticism, slights, disappointment and vile Internet commenters with a so-what? shrug and move on to the real business of my day: cleaning the lint trap and perusing the web for black suede ankle boots.
The sad truth is that though they’ve thickened my waist, the years haven’t much thickened my skin. In fact, I’m not sailing weightlessly through middle age; I’m lugging a satchel full of grudges, some of which date back to middle school. Yes, 45 years later, I’m still salty about not getting to play one of the March sisters in our Girl Scout production of “Little Women.” Instead, due to my height and mortifying pixie cut, the Mom/director cast me as Laurie, the boyfriend. When I think about it – which is rarely, but still – the sting is fresh, as if I endured the flesh wound last week.
Consider the people I’ve not managed to let off the hook and the grievances, compounded by time, that have soured like old cream over the years. Professional ones: the colleague at ABC who told a damaging lie about me to my boss. Emotional ones: the girl my boyfriend cheated with late one Saturday night senior year of high school, while I bawled into the cushions of the couch. Social ones: the woman who canceled on my dinner gathering with a sob story, and showed up on Facebook the next morning in a party hat. Even deeper, perhaps, is what lingers on behalf of my family. I still bristle at the mere mention of a girl who relentlessly picked on my daughter in third grade, the one who told her that only a loser would wear a pink snowsuit. I see her mother occasionally at the grocery and am at pains to ask how little V. is doing in her sophomore year of college. It’s telling to note that my daughter put this behind her a decade ago.
Chock it up to life on earth that everyone on it is occasionally hurt, ignored, dissed, dismissed, humiliated, offended, slighted, excluded, and completely – frustratingly – misunderstood. We’ve been passed over for a promotion by a less deserving jerk, blamed for something we didn’t do, disliked or gossiped about for no logical reason. Sometimes, grudges spring up, toxic and whole, from the helpless wreckage of pain and anger, for us to hide in or hoard in some perverse facsimile of self-protection.
Maybe it offers some dark, twisted satisfaction to clutch onto grievances, these imaginary vials of poison poised to deploy against those we perceive to have wounded us. But I’m not a Soprano (or a Montague, a Capulet, or a bilious president). I’m a nice middle-aged woman, neither capable of nor interested in seeking payback on those who have crossed me. What am I going to do? Pistols at dawn with the person who declined to blurb my book? No, the only one getting poisoned is me.
These days, occasionally I assess what I can do to lift my overall mood and stem the forces that drain me. Even with chemical peels and Pilates, life isn’t getting any longer for those of us moving through our sixth decade, and it’s worthwhile to recognize when we have a death grip on what makes us miserable. It took one of my old literary heroines to incite a reckoning. While re-reading “Jane Eyre,” I got riled up by what I saw as her blindness to the injustice she suffered – from her abusive aunt Sarah Reed and from Mr. Rochester, who lied to her and otherwise acted like a total creep. “Where’s your sense of outrage?” I wailed to the pages. “Have you no fight in you?” It was exhausting.
Jane was no simpleton, but I think she knew something I need to accept: that grudges are a colossal waste of emotional space. They are clutter in the clean chamber of the mind. They root you in the past and block the ability to exist unfettered in a soft, gentle place. Holding on is corrosive on the stomach lining and sometimes on a good night’s sleep. Above all, lingering resentment takes a toll on my sense of morality, forged as a little girl in Sunday school at St. Mary’s Parish, where I was taught from the cradle to forgive those who trespass against me.
Forgiveness is what enlightenment is all about. War and destruction are about avenging grievances. The payback fantasy is not healthy for our tender souls. When we nurse a grievance, we’re picking a fight with someone we never intend to confront. How pointless is that? What’s worse and even more inexcusable is that a grudge makes us embrace an exaggerated or false sense of victimhood. This annihilates the control we actually have over our own well-being.
Unless there was an actual crime or an irreversible emotional wound, claiming victimhood can be a cop-out. And yet, even in the aftermath of a brutal crime, sometimes people choose forgiveness over fury and hate. The families of those massacred at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston gave us a lesson in grace when, incredibly, they showed compassion towards the gunman who slaughtered their relatives. And who can forget the image from Steubenville, Ohio, when a mother embraced and forgave her 16-year-old daughter’s rapist in the courtroom? These episodes of soaring humanity make a mockery of our everyday petty grievances.
I’d hate to think that someone out there nurses a grudge against me, but they do, and I know of at least one. One friend, I gather, is still furious that I didn’t invite her to my intimate wedding in Paris, 25 years ago. I get it and regret it. I should have explained back then why I kept it small. There is a reason for most bad behavior and usually it’s a trifle, a misunderstanding, mistake, or very human lapse in judgment.
Ann Landers said, “Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.” Isn’t there enough out there in this complicated, troubled world to disquiet our minds? Besides, I’m willing to believe that grudges also cause wrinkles and bad posture. I don’t need any help aging, thank you. And I shudder at the prospect of being a cranky old lady, still harping on about the time I got stiffed in Girl Scouts. Instead, maybe I can talk about my brilliant gender-busting portrayal of a young man in “Little Women” back when I was a teenager. That, my grandkids might want to hear.