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Anatomy of Resentment II—Breaking Free of Entanglement

We have some wonderful advice in the formula “Do not resent, do not react, keep inner stillness.”  It works great if I stop myself in time.  But what if I find myself already trapped in resentment?  What then?  Well, I will share with you what I know.  As an old man of my acquaintance often puts it, what I have to say is based on my present understanding.

I’ve found it easier to get into trouble than to get back out.  Since resentment tends to be a habit of thought and feeling for me, though, I jump right into it without stopping to think.  Before I realize it, I’ve become horribly entangled.  I quickly take things personally, attribute bad motives to people when I think they have wronged me, and rationalize my narrative with self-deception, self-pity, self-righteousness, and self-justification.  I know how to do those things.  In contrast, spiritual warfare has come into my life comparatively recently.  I cannot expect the accomplishments a more experienced spiritual warrior would have.  I don’t do very well at catching the tantalizing tendency toward thinking that “it’s all about me” the moment it appears.  Not yet, anyway.  I may get there.  But right now I have my work cut out for me as I dismantle something I have already built.  I need to be patient with myself as I move ahead.

One element of our brotherhood’s spiritual heritage is the observation that we enjoy more success in the spiritual life by remembering what we ought to be doing than by feeling guilty for our mistakes.  I believe that and try to carry it out while I continue to undo my old unwholesome habits from the past.

A good first step in the process is to forgive the person I resent.  In fact, one way to understand forgiveness is to consider it as a decision to let go of a resentment.  You’ll notice that I call it a decision.  To bring forgiveness all the way through to completion involves letting go of disturbing emotions such as anger and the thought processes that accompany them such as judgment.  That takes time.  But we have to start somewhere, and that starting point is the decision.  As resentment begins with a choice to take things personally, similarly forgiveness begins with a choice to let go.  This doesn’t mean that the feelings will disappear immediately.  I have sometimes seen them linger on for years.  But every time they came back, I reminded myself that I had made a decision to let go.  In other words, I make the decision to let go and I reaffirm it as many times as it takes.  I don’t expect this type of spiritual warfare to resemble a blitzkrieg.  I prepare for a siege.  Here patience and commitment count for everything.

I don’t suppose I will immediately stop thinking someone wronged me.  And of course in some cases someone really did do me wrong.  But that doesn’t really matter, because forgiveness does not consist in coming to consider the other person innocent.  It consists in ceasing to stew over the matter.  Even when someone did wrong me badly, I can still make a decision to stop dwelling on it.  That step alone will release me from the fixation on details that lead to self-deception, such as picking out the facts in the situation that emphasize my innocence.  Where self-deception has become part of the edifice I have built, I can begin to dynamite its foundations simply by sticking to my decision not to run through the story over and over. As I consistently refuse to replay what is over and done with, I let go of what supports self-pity.  Instead of looking at myself as a victim, I return to a calmer and more normal outlook.  I accept life’s ups and downs.  If something happens that I don’t like, it has no particular significance.  Life happens.  No big deal.  There is actually a practical step I can take at this point, which is to stop talking to other people about how badly I think I have been treated, because one of the ways I support my view of being a victim is to retell the story so that I persuade other people to endorse my view of things.  The decision to forgive, then, requires that I stop gossiping about the person I have forgiven.  I can win my first battle against thoughts by gaining victory over my mouth.

To combat self-righteousness, I don’t necessarily need to believe that the other person is right and I am wrong.  What works more effectively is to let go of worrying about who is right and who is wrong.  Does it matter?  Really?  Instead of putting my attention on who is winning, I can just remove myself from the game.

If I can keep tearing down my self-deception, self-pity, and self-righteousness, I probably won’t have much work left in battling against self-justification.  When I get rid of those things, after all, out goes everything I use to prove I’m right.  When thoughts occur to me that I can get back at someone, they will not belong to a whole package of me against them thinking, and they will stand out as being as strange as they really are.

In a full and balanced spiritual life, more happens than just the battle against resentments and everything built up on top of them.  As I unlearn old and destructive habits I also form new and healthy habits.  One place where we can see the connection between removing bad habits and acquiring good ones is in the prayer of St. Isaac that we say all through Great Lent.  I’m thinking of the wonderful line where we ask God to help us see our own sins and not to judge our brother.  The second part of that line concerns the spiritual battle against resentments.  The first part of the line teaches me to pay more attention to my own sins.  As I gain a clearer view of my own shortcomings, that new outlook makes the occasions when I judge my brother stick out like a sore thumb.  Then I can’t escape noticing when I am trying to persuade myself of my supposed innocence, feeling sorry for myself, and plunging into self-righteousness and self-justification.  In other words, the constructive effort to live the way God wants me to live places resentment and all its rationalizations in their true light.

The strategy in the war against resentment, then, has several elements to it.  These can occur in whatever order I’m able to carry them out.  But they include things like these.  I undo the damage I have created by insisting that I’m right.  I stop acting on those ideas.  I look at my own sins instead of judging others.  I remind myself of how I should act toward people.  Last of all, so slowly that it seems to take forever, I begin to loosen my death grip on emotions like anger and fear—the feelings that accompany the memory of being wronged.  When I manage to do these things, it brings me a new sense of happiness and peace.  It becomes easier and easier to do what I ought to be doing instead of feeling guilty for my mistakes.  As I put this plan into action instead of just agreeing with it in theory, it becomes more and more appealing and I start to enjoy the rewards.

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