Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Grudges: Who do they hurt, really?

My college friend Gage worked as a journalist for many years, and he's now a minister. The skills sets required to excel in those two professions have combined in a pretty amazing way, resulting in some blog posts that have made me think lately about the fact that I'm capable of being a pretty rotten person.

(And Gage's last name is Church. For real. Is that not the best minister name ever?)

I know it's not Gage's intent to make me beat myself up, and I'm also not trying to be tongue-in-cheek. But when something weighs on my mind for days on end, it usually makes me realize there's some truth, however uncomfortable, to whatever is working its way into my head. And because of Gage, I've been mulling over the fact that I'm a lot more like Charlie Lavia than I ever imagined.

Charlie was my dad; he died in March, and being like him is not a bad thing. In fact, in 99 percent of ways, it's a really good thing. It was that 1 percent that tended to cause problems, and wouldn't you know it: I didn't inherit his skill with numbers, but I sure did latch onto his most notable fault: his penchant for grudge-holding.

When it came to grudges, my dad was a master at his craft. He had been known not to speak to certain family members for years after witnessing the most minor slights; if a person made a mistake that directly impacted him -- especially if it had to do with finances -- my dad was "done," as he'd say curtly, with a flick of his hand. He didn't suffer fools gladly; if he was pleased with you, you knew it. But if you had disappointed him, you knew that, too, and often, you knew it for a very, very long time.

Those of us who knew Dad well, though, also knew that his wrath usually was a cover for the fact that someone had hurt his feelings. While he may have come off to some as hard and tough, he was actually quite sensitive and easily wounded. He was unable to say, "You upset me," or "you hurt me." So he'd instead refer to you by a string of expletives and freeze you out for a good long time, and if you wanted to get back into his good graces, you either had to work very hard, or a whole lot of time had to pass.

The specifics of the grudges I hold aren't important; the fact that I hold them at all is the relevant thing. After all, I have no right to hold grudges; the last time I looked, I sure wasn't perfect. As a spiritual person, I'm capable of talking a pretty good game on the "love one another" front, but when it comes right down to it, I'm really only pretty good at loving the people who are easy for me to love.

Like my dad, I tend to mask hurt with anger, or with biting, cutting sarcasm. But unlike my dad, I'm usually pretty good at talking about my feelings. (My husband would say, in fact, that I'm a bit too good, and too thorough, at talking about them.) Why, then, is it difficult for me to deal respectfully but directly with the people I feel have wronged me in some way? Can I blame it on my ethnicity? Italians are passionate people. It's easier to demonstrate anger than rationalism.

As Gage says, "holding a grudge and seeking revenge rot our soul. No resentment is worth shortening our life through the sickening stress that results." He goes on to say that focusing on faith can bring us clarity and comfort. I agree with this, but I’m not very disciplined at falling back on it when I’m on the warpath because someone has really, really ticked me off.

The irony, as Gage points out, is that the grudge-holder is the one being hurt by the grudge. I can think of a former co-worker I’ve grudged on for over a decade; he’s not impacted in the least by my feelings, but thinking of him and his actions toward me and others can bring tears to my eyes. Yes, after all these years.

Let it go, Lisa. Let it go.

In a perfect world, the people we try to be good to aren’t necessarily going to return the favor. After some sort of transgression, we can extend an olive branch, but there’s no guarantee the gesture will be received in kind. I guess that’s when we need to stop and realize that it’s our job to extend the offer, but then it can also be our responsibility to graciously walk away.

We all just want to be treated fairly, I think. But as my dad often said, life isn’t fair. I wish he could have let go, especially toward the end, of some decades-old perceived slights that continued to bother him.

But who knows? Maybe from his current vantage point, he's somehow working through my pal Gage to make a dent in my thick skull.