RonRolheiser,OMI

The Unhappy Cost of Resentment

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It’s not only love that makes the world go round. Resentment too is prominent in stirring the drink. In so many ways our world is drowning in resentment. Everywhere you look, it seems, someone is bitter about something and breathing out resentment. What is resentment? Why is this feeling so prevalent in our lives? How do we move beyond it?

Soren Kierkegaard once defined resentment in this way. Resentment, he suggested, happens when we move from the happy feeling of admiration to the unhappy feeling of jealousy. And this, sadly, happens all too frequently in our lives and we are dangerously blind to its occurrence. Me resentful? How dare you make that accusation!

Yet it’s hard to deny that resentment and its concomitant unhappiness color our world. At every level of life, from what we see playing out in the grievances and wars among nations to what we see playing out in the bickering in our board rooms, class rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms, there is evidence of resentment and bitterness. Our world is full of resentment. Everyone, it seems, is bitter about something, and, of course, not without cause.  Few are the persons who do not secretly nurse the feeling that they have been ignored, wounded, cheated, treated unfairly, and have drawn too many short straws in life; and so many of us feel that we have every right to protest our right to be resentful and unhappy.  We’re not happy, but with good reason.

Yes, there’s always good reason to be resentful; but, and this is the point of this column, according to a number of insightful analysts, both old and new, we are rarely in touch with the real reason why we are so spontaneously bitter. For persons such as Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard, Robert Moore, Gil Bailie, Robert Bly, and Richard Rohr, among others, the deep root of our resentment and unhappiness lies in our inability to admire, our inability to praise others, and our inability to give others and the world a simple gaze of admiration.

We’re a society that, for the most part, can’t admire. Admiration is, for us, a lost virtue. Indeed in the many circles today, both in the world and in the churches, admiration is seen as something juvenile and immature, the frenzied, mindless shrieking of teenage girls chasing a rock star. Maturity and sophistication are identified today with the kind of intelligence, wit, and reticence, which don’t easily admire, which don’t easily compliment. Learning and maturity, we believe, need to be picking things apart, suspicious of others’ virtues, distrustful of their motives, on hyper-alert for hypocrisy, and articulating every reason not to admire. Such is the view today.

But what we don’t admit in this view of maturity and learning is how we feel threatened by those whose graces or virtues exceed our own. What we don’t admit is our own jealousy.  What we don’t admit is our own resentment. What we don’t admit, and never will admit, is how our need to cut down someone else is an infallible sign of our own jealousy and bad self-image. And what helps us in our denial is this: Cynicism and cold judgment make for a perfect camouflage; we don’t need to admire because we’re bright enough to see that there’s nothing really to admire.

That, too often, is our sophisticated, unhappy state: We can no longer truly admire anybody. We can no longer truly praise anybody. We can no longer look at the world with any praise or admiration. Rather our gaze is perennially soured by resentment, cynicism, judgment, and jealousy.

We can test ourselves on this: Robert Moore often challenges his audiences to ask themselves this question: When was the last time you walked across a room and told a person, especially a younger person or a person whose talents dwarf yours, that you admire her, that you admire what she’s doing, that her gifts enrich your life, and that you are happy that her path has crossed yours? When was the last time you gave someone a heartfelt compliment? Or, to reverse the question: When was the last time that someone, especially someone who is threatened by your talents, gave you a sincere compliment?

We don’t compliment each other easily, or often, and this betrays a secret jealousy. It also reveals a genuine moral flaw in our lives. Thomas Aquinas one submitted that to withhold a compliment from someone who deserves it is a sin because we are withholding from him or her some of the food that he or she needs to live. To not admire, to not praise, to not compliment, is not a sign of sophistication but a sign moral immaturity and personal insecurity. It is also one of the deeper reasons why we so often fill with bitter feelings of resentment and unhappiness.

Why do we so often feel bitter and resentful? We fill with resentment for many reasons, though, not least, because we have lost the virtues of admiration and praise.

Sacred Permission to be Human and the Tools to Handle Frustration

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Sometimes certain texts in the bible make you wonder: Is this really the word of God? Why is this text in scripture? What’s the lesson here?

For example, we have verses in the Psalms, in passages that we pray liturgically, where we ask God to bash the heads of the children of our enemies against a rock. How does that invite us to love our enemies? We see passages in the Book of Job where Job is in despair and curses not on only the day he was born but the very fact that anyone was born. It’s impossible to find even a trace of anything positive in his lament. Similarly, in a rather famous text, we hear Qoheleth affirm that everything in our lives and in the life of this world is simple vanity, wind, vapor, of no substance and of no consequence. What’s the lesson here? Then, in the Gospels, we have passages where the apostles, discouraged by opposition to their message, ask Jesus to call down fire and destroy the very people to whom they are supposed to minister. Hardly an exemplar for ministry!

Why are these texts in the bible? Because they give us sacred permission to feel the way we feel sometimes and they give us sacred tools to help us deal with the shortcomings and frustrations of our lives.  They are, in fact, both very important and very consoling texts because, to put it metaphorically, they give us a large enough keyboard to play all the songs that we need to play in our lives. They give us the laments and the prayers we need to utter sometimes in the face of our human condition, with its many frustrations, and in the face of death, tragedy, and depression.

To give a simple example: A friend of mine shares this story: Recently he was in church with his family, which included his seven year-old son, Michael, and his own mother, Michael’s grandmother. At one point, Michael, seated beside his grandmother, whispered aloud: “I’m so bored!” His grandmother pinched him and chided him: “You are not bored!” as if the sacred ambience of church and an authoritative command could change human nature. They can’t. When we’re bored, we’re bored! And sometimes we need to be given divine permission to feel what we’re spontaneously feeling.

Some years ago, for all the noblest of intentions, a religious community I know wanted to sanitize the Psalms that they pray regularly in the Divine Office to rid them of all elements of anger, violence, vengeance, and war. They had some of their own scripture scholars do the work so that it would be scholarly and serious. They succeeded in that, the product was scholarly and serious, but stripped of all motifs of violence, vengeance, anger, and war what resulted was something that looked more like a Hallmark Card than a series of prayers that express real life and real feelings. We don’t always feel upbeat, generous, and faith-filled. Sometimes we feel angry, bitter, and vengeful. We need to be given sacred permission to feel that way (though not to act that way) and to pray in honesty out of that space.

My parents, and for the most part their whole generation, would, daily, in their prayers, utter these words: To You do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Our own generation tends to view this as morbid, as somehow denigrating both the beauty and joy of life and the perspective that faith is meant to give us. But there’s a hidden richness in that prayer. In praying in that way, they gave themselves sacred permission to accept the limits of their lives. That prayer carries the symbolic tools to handle frustration; something, I submit, we have failed to sufficiently give to our own children. Too many young people today have never been given the symbolic tools to handle frustration, nor sacred permission to feel what they are feeling. Sometimes, all good intentions aside, we have handed our children more of Walt Disney than Gospel.

In the Book of Lamentations we find a passage that while sounding negative on the surface, is paradoxically, in the face of death and tragedy, perhaps the most consoling text of all. The text simply states that, sometimes in life, all we can do is put our mouths to the dust and wait!

That’s sound advice, spoken from the mouth of experience and the mouth of faith.

The poet, Rainer Marie Rilke, once wrote these words to a friend who, in the face of the death of a loved one, wondered how or where he could ever find consolation. What do I do with all this grief?  Rilke’s reply: “Do not be afraid to suffer, give that heaviness back to the weight of the earth; mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.”  They are, so too is life sometimes and we need to be given God’s permission to feel that heaviness.

Five People Who Helped Give Me Some Self-Understanding

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Although I grew up in a loving, safe, and nurturing family and community, one of the dominant memories of my childhood and teenage years is that of being restless and somehow discontent. My life always seemed too small, too confined, a life away from what was important in the world. I was forever longing to be more connected to life and I feared that other people didn’t feel that way and that I was somehow singular and unhealthy in my restlessness.

I entered the Oblate seminary immediately after high school and carried that restlessness with me, except that now, entering religious life, I felt even more worry and shame in carrying this disquiet. However, midway through that first year of training, a year which religious congregations call novitiate, we received a visit from an extraordinary Oblate missionary named Noah Warnke, a man who had received numerous civic and church awards for his achievements and who was widely respected. He began his address to us, the novices, by asking us these questions: “Are you restless? Feeling isolated in this religious house? Feeling lonely and cut off from the world?” We all nodded, yes, he’d clearly struck a live-chord. “Good,” he replied, “you should be feeling restless. My God, you should be jumping out of your skins, you’ve all that red-blood, and fire, and energy and you’re holed-up here away from everything! But that’s good, that restlessness is a good feeling, you’re healthy!  Tough it out with the restlessness, it’ll be worth it in the long run!” It was the first time in my life that someone had legitimatized how I was feeling. I felt like I had just been introduced to myself: “Are you jumping out of your skin? Good, you’re healthy!”

Immediately after that novitiate year, I began my theological training and one of the persons we studied in depth was Thomas Aquinas. He was the second person who helped introduce me to myself.  I was nineteen years old when I first met his thought and, although some of his insights were a bit beyond my young mind, I understood enough to find in him not just some legitimization for how I was feeling but also, more importantly, a meta-narrative within which to understand why I was feeling the way I did. Aquinas asks: “What is the adequate object of the human mind and heart?” In other words, what would we have to experience in order to be fully satisfied? His answer: All being, everything! What would we have to experience to be fully satisfied is everything. We would have to know everything and be known by everybody, a human impossibility in this life, and so it shouldn’t be a mystery as to why we live in perpetual disquiet and why, as Pascal says, all the miseries of the human being come from the fact that we can’t sit still in a room for one hour.

The third person that helped introduce me to myself was Sidney Callahan. Reading her book on sexuality as a young seminarian, I was struck by how she linked sex to soul, and how desire, not least sexual desire, has deep roots in the soul. At one point she makes this simple statement. I don’t have the exact quote, but it is words to this effect: If you look at yourself and your insatiability and worry that you are too-restless, over-sexed, and somehow pathological in your dissatisfactions, it doesn’t mean that you are sick, it just means that you are healthy and not in need of any hormone shots! These were liberating words for a restless, over-sensitive twenty year-old.

A couple of years later, I was introduced to the writings of Henri Nouwen and he, perhaps more than anyone else, gave me permission to feel what I feel. Nouwen, as we know, was such a powerful writer because he was so honest in sharing his own neediness, restlessness, and disquiet. He had a singular talent for tracing out the restless movements within our souls. For instance, in describing his own struggles, he writes: “I want to be a saint, but I also want to experience all the sensations that sinners experience. Small wonder, that life is a struggle.”

Finally, of course, there’s St. Augustine and his famed opening to the Confessions wherein he summarizes his life-long struggle in the words: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  We carry infinity inside us and thus should not be surprised that we will never find full consummation and peace within the finite. Augustine also gave us that wonderful rationalization that we all use to put off into the indefinite future some of the things that we need to do now: Lord, make me a chaste Christian, but not yet!

Some people talk about the five people they would like to meet in heaven. These are the five people who have helped me understand what it means to walk on this earth.