Of life’s many lessons, perhaps none is so instructive as that brought on by the loss of a close friend or family member. The death of a loved one tends to soften our hearts, realigning our perspective concerning those things which hold most value for us. Losing someone so dear reminds us that loving each other is all that really matters in life.
My grandmother’s recent passing led me to reconsider some of my own priorities and to reflect on ‘the weightier matters’ of life. I was pleased to see it also stimulate some healing between family members who had become estranged over time due to petty differences and perceived offenses.
I am convinced that, among the many challenges of mortality, none is more critical – yet more difficult – than learning to get along. Yet we all, to a greater or lesser extent, struggle to maneuver our way through the dips and bumps of interpersonal relationships without getting high centered. For some, carrying a ‘chip on their shoulder’ becomes a way of life.
Naturally, few of us consciously set out to carry this excess baggage through life. We all have more sense than to say, “My life’s just not hard enough; I think I’ll go out and find some bitterness and resentment to keep me occupied.”
There are those, however, who are quick to take offense, who perceive hurt even when it is not intended. Others of us get all tangled up in unjust treatment by others, allowing the hurt to fester and clip at our heels. In a word, we collude with the accused, justifying our negative feelings or behavior by dwelling on how we’ve been wronged.
I know my own pride can get in the way and trip me up. I’m guilty of trying to control and change others rather than, as my dad always used to say, “Watching out for number one.” I’m not immune from getting caught up in ‘the thick of thin things,’ and I can play the martyr role as good as the next guy. I’ve learned that seeing others as the problem often IS the problem.
From a purely psychological perspective, a major problem with holding a grudge is that you can never quite be yourself. Your actions become tainted by calculated moves. “Ah! Becky’s home…ooooh, I hate her! I’ll avoid her so she’ll know I’m still mad at her.” It takes considerable energy to hold a grudge. We begin to censor our actions, and often become consumed with fantasies of what we’d like to say or do to the accused.
The world of resentment is a cold one where hearts become easy targets for emotional frostbite. And the longer or more frequent you go there, the more likely you are to become numb to what’s really important in life…loving.
So what’s the alternative to numbness and frostbite? What would life be like if we refused to collude? How would things be different if we refused to take offense?
Clearly, we’d be faced with the prospect of taking responsibility for ourselves. We would be forced to freely and unconditionally forgive (which is not synonymous with, for instance, choosing to continue to associate with someone who is bent on hurting others). Rising above and moving beyond the hurts caused by others would give us greater peace and happiness. In short, it would free us up to be ourselves again.
In such a world, we would learn to let go. Better yet, we would un-learn to hang on. I say that because I believe that much of the changes we all need to make involve more un-learning of bad habits than learning new ones that are unknown to us.
To those who would say “But Dr. Gentry, you just don’t understand!” it is true; I do not understand your particular situation. But neither do I understand your desire to sentence yourself to more of the same. I do not understand how hanging on to the pain and anger is going to help you love others, nor to be happy. At some point, to find peace you must leave anger behind. The invitation is ever there to choose the ‘good part,’ the ‘more excellent way.’
All that really matters in life are feelings and relationships; everything else is ‘fluff.’ Letting go of excess baggage can be a challenge, for sure, but you can do it when your heart is right. If, however, you begin to wonder if it’s all worth it, stop to consider the alternative…more of hatred, resentment, and disaffection. These feelings will simply eat you up if you continue to associate with them.
My grandma is gone to a place where I’m sure love reigns supreme. May she rest in peace, and may the rest of us all likewise learn to live together in peace.