A conversation yesterday with one of our oblates and reading RB 39 (On the Measure of Food) today have combined to make me think again about resentment.
Resentment is a tricky subject. We tend to bridle if we are accused of being resentful — and we always are ‘accused’, there is never any entirely neutral verb, is there? — and resort to self-justification. The trouble is, we can be resentful about so many things. I remember a nun telling me, with a chuckle, that one of her community had complained when she was given four plums and her neighbour five. Trivial? Yes, and not at all in the spirit of RB 39 or Benedict’s exhortations against grumbling, but true to life and human nature. It seems we cannot help comparing our lot with that of others and being aggrieved if we seem to have less or, even worse, are somehow overlooked. How many a poetaster has been filled with ire that their poetic genius has not been recognized by a cruel world! How many a child — even when grown up — has blamed the sorrows and failures of their life on unfair parental treatment! There is also a devious form of resentment which claims the moral high ground by being passionate about the injustice suffered by another. Sometimes the concern is real and prompts the one who feels it to work tirelessly to improve matters. Sometimes it isn’t and is merely a vehicle for a little angry posturing.
The common denominator in all these forms of resentment is feeling (the origins of the word are ultimately to be found in the Latin sentire, to feel, though it comes to us via French, where the sense of grievance is already present), and feelings are always complicated. I think that is why we are usually urged to disregard feelings when dealing with matters of the spirit. That, however, is to disregard the fact that feeling is a very large part of human life. We know the effects of resentment can be crippling. It is certainly a huge burden to carry, one that weighs heavily on others as well as ourselves, because when we act out of the pool of accumulated resentments inside us, we tend to be harsh on others and make their lives miserable as well as our own. Is there any cure, any way of lifting the burden?
St Benedict is very clear that what is not possible to us by nature is possible to God by grace. So, of course we have to pray, knowing that we shall probably have to go on praying until our dying day because we do not know ourselves completely and do not always recognize what drives us. But prayer can become a way of feeding the resentment by making us dwell on what we think needs to be addressed. That is counter-productive, but an easy mistake to fall into. Perhaps a more profitable approach would be to try to find something every day for which we can genuinely give thanks or praise. On my own worst days, when I’m feeling sick and don’t know what to do with myself, the best I can manage is to thank God for letting me live another day. That is truthful, and is much better than pretending to thank God for the beauties of nature/music/poetry, which I can’t appreciate just then, or for letting me suffer, which would be (a) aggrandizing what I’m experiencing and (b) total nonsense since I couldn’t honestly say that. Somehow, and I’m really not sure how, the act of thanking God and turning one’s gaze away from oneself is the best way I’ve yet found of lifting the burden of resentment from my own shoulders and the shoulders of others. It’s like dropping the distractions that bubble up in prayer. When a resentment rears its ugly head, don’t bother to look at it, just ignore it — and don’t keep a score of successes and failures!
Today I am praying for all who are burdened with resentments, great and small. Please join me.