You might consider me a leading authority on the topic of resentments. No, I’m not bragging. I’ve gained my knowledge the hard way—by struggling against them, sometimes with success and sometimes not. This battle represents a big part of my spiritual life.
I have the benefit, though, of living in a place where I have some sound guidance for the battle. Our brotherhood has received a nice formula for the ascetic battle against thoughts: Do not resent, do not react, keep inner stillness. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, as people say about other things, it’s simple but not easy. Most of us probably have to work pretty hard at it.
And in spite of the simplicity—or apparent simplicity—of the formula, the part about resentments presents more of a problem than you might suppose, because we all talk about them (often accusing other people of having them) but we don’t always have a clear idea of what we mean by the concept. I’m going to try here to sort out what resentment involves and a few developments that can take place once we have them.
One thing that helps us to understand the idea is to look at the origin of the words associated with it. The verb “to resent” and the noun “resentment” both came to us from the French. The verb entered our language first, it seems, in the thirteenth century, while the noun “resentment” wasn’t attested until the sixteenth. The verb is a compound, going back to Latin elements, “re-“ indicating “again” and “sentire,” meaning “to feel.” So the basic idea is that we feel something again which we already felt.
Another guide to understanding the concept is to see how the Ascetic Fathers talk about it. Many of the texts we read in English translate the relevant Greek expression rather literally as “remembrance of wrongs.” In other words, resentment has to do with a memory of something someone did to us to wrong us. In reality, though, we can see that the Fathers speak about our remembering incidents in which we think someone wronged us. So this tells us that “remembrance of wrongs” begins with our taking something personally, whether the other person intended to wrong us or not.
When we put all of this together, we get a good notion of what resentment is. It’s a memory of how someone wronged us or harmed us—or at least that’s how we interpreted it—accompanied by one or more afflictive emotions such as anger, shame, or the like. It seems to be something that sticks with us. We can’t easily get rid of it. In that sense, resentment is an example of our failing at the battle against thoughts. In his texts on Watchfulness and Holiness, St. Hesychios the Priest summarizes the stages in the battle against thoughts:
(46.) The provocation comes first, then our coupling with it, or the mingling of our thoughts with those of the wicked demons. Third comes our assent to the provocation, with both sets of intermingling thoughts contriving how to commit the sin in practice. Fourth comes the concrete action—that is, the sin itself. (in Philokalia, vol. 1. Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth. tr. from the Greek and edited by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1979. p. 170)
We can say that we fail in this battle because a resentment represents a state of mind—and emotion—in which we have reached what St. Hesychios describes as the third stage, where we assent to the provocation, with both sets of intermingling thoughts contriving how to commit the sin in practice. We remain ready to use the resentment as a basis for action. At the very least we use it to interpret what happens to us in further interactions with the person we resent. Here things become more complex, because the resentment can serve as a foundation for at least four more developments. It’s probably no coincidence that the terms for these all begin with “self.” Here I will just recount what I know from my own experience and my own struggles.
What do I mean when I say I assent to a provocation that consists of a memory accompanied by anger or other hurt feelings? Well, in ordinary English it means that I have made a choice to regard myself as mistreated. I pick out the facts in the situation that support that interpretation. I construct a narrative that tells a story of the other person’s guilt and my own innocence. I replace the plain facts with a more convenient version. I begin to engage in self-deception. From there I move to the second step, self-pity. That is, I feel sorry for myself. I may ask myself questions like “why did this happen to me?” or even “why do things like this always seem to happen to me?” Instead of simply accepting the fact that life has its ups and downs, I view myself as a victim. I can express this in a variety of ways. Maybe I complain to others, for example, or maybe I just go around in a bad mood.
In the third development I come to believe that I have been a victim of unusually bad treatment, so that my rights have been ignored in a way that has not happened to other people. Therefore, I plunge straight into self-righteousness. In simple terms—I believe that I am right and the other person is wrong.
The fourth development leads me more fully toward what St. Hesychios calls the concrete action, or the sin itself. This development is self-justification. Once I convince myself that the other person has trampled on my rights—and not merely a single time, because by now I have started using the original occasion as an interpretive key to all further encounters with that person—I can then regard wrongdoing on my own part as simple justice. It is a convenient piece of rationalization, after all, to think that wrongdoing in response to previous wrongdoing just amounts to “evening the score.” It is the childish sort of reasoning that says, “But he hit me first.”
Once a resentment has become an unquestioned support for self-deception, self-pity, self-righteousness, and self-justification, it can be very hard to see that it originated in a choice. The first stage in getting tangled up in thoughts and emotions happened because of something someone else did. But the second stage, which St. Hesychios calls “coupling,” cannot occur at all unless I let it happen. The other person may or may not have intended the “affront” as something personal. The process toward resentment begins only if I take it personally. In fact, if the other person insults me or wrongs me intentionally and I brush it off, I never start walking down the path that brings me to resentment, let alone self-deception, self-pity, self-righteousness, and self-justification.