[This post is the sixth in a series called “Humans Anonymous” on the spirituality of twelve-step recovery and the insights it offers for anyone wanting to live a spiritually-centered life. The first installment can be found here; links to successive articles can be found at the end of each post.]
In yesterday’s post, I talked about the dangers posed by anger for those attempting to live a spiritually-centered life and explained a method for taking inventory with respect to anger and resentment. Taking such an inventory is by no means an easy task, and it can often leave a person feeling deeply unsettled. By the very nature of such an inventory, old wounds are examined and old feelings stirred up. Tender places in our psyches are touched on, and the process can often be painful. It is not uncommon, when revisiting episodes that led to resentments, to be again possessed by the anger the episodes provoked when they first occurred. Indeed, like love potions in the Harry Potter novels, anger often strengthens with age, and taking such an inventory can leave us feeling even more angry about an incident than we were when the incident occurred. Therefore, before moving on to other topics to be covered by the 4th Step moral inventory, it seems prudent to talk about how to deal with anger and resentment in such a way that it does not take control of our lives, and perhaps more importantly, lead us to lash out.
If the resentment inventory has been done thoroughly, we are well on the way to overcoming the anger. The fourth and fifth columns of the inventory, when we examine our own part in situations and identify the defects of character that underlie our actions, help us to see that we are not perfect and that the person, situation or institution we resent is not entirely evil. This helps us to avoid perhaps the most dangerous kind of anger, that fueled by self-righteousness. Any student of history can see that religious wars are some of the nastiest of all human conflicts; this is so because one or both sides believes themselves to be completely in the right, “on God’s side,” and that therefore those who oppose them must necessarily be evil and worthy of destruction. Avoiding self-righteous anger and resisting the temptation to demonize those who hurt us goes a long way to avoiding the worst excesses of our natures.
There are other practical, concrete things we can do to be rid of our resentments. The first and most powerful is an old notion, often forgotten in our modern age: prayer for our enemies. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples, saying,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:43-45)
And again, in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says,
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-31)
Now, if you’re anything like me, your first impulse is not to pray for the people who piss you off, especially if they have hurt you unjustly. My first impulse, had I been in Jesus’ original audience on these occasions, would have been to blurt out, “You gotta be kidding me, Jesus!” While I believe Jesus was more of a jokester than we give him credit for, however, I don’t think he was joking when he said this. I think he was serious. I believe Jesus told his disciples to pray for their enemies because Jesus knew that this was the path to freedom for those enslaved by anger and resentment. The reason I believe that is because, crazy as it sounds, what Jesus told his disciples to do actually works.
Very early on in my sobriety, I was overwhelmed with resentments. I had been deeply and profoundly angry throughout my drinking, and now, without the anesthetizing effect of C2H6O, the range of my moods seemed to vary from mildly grumpy to boiling mad. I was spending a lot of time in my head sharpening resentments, but the only person being cut by those well-honed blades was me. Desperate for relief, I brought the topic up in an AA meeting. Many people in the room nodded sympathetically, letting me know they could relate to what I was experiencing. When I was done, a friend who I’ll call George (not his real name) shared his experience of resenting his ex-wife early on in sobriety. (George has given me permission to relate this story.) He related how his blood would boil at every reminder of her, from seeing a car similar to hers to driving down a street with the same name as her. His sponsor encouraged him to pray for his ex-wife, every morning and every evening, for two weeks. The sponsor specified that George should pray for good things for his ex, asking God to bless her and, in effect, asking God to grant his ex-wife the things he would want for himself. George, skeptical but desperate for relief from his resentment, went home that evening, got on his knees, and said, “God, you know I don’t mean this and I don’t believe it, but I hope you bless that bitch!” A rough start, perhaps, but a start. After two weeks, his sponsor asked him if it had helped, and George admitted, grudgingly, that while the resentment had not gone away, it had gotten a little better. His sponsor then cheerfully directed him to continue the practice for another two weeks. This cycle repeated itself, every two weeks, until, after about six months, George realized that he no longer resented his ex-wife, and that when he now prayed for her to be blessed with peace of mind, serenity, security and happiness, he genuinely meant it. As luck would have it, he ran into his ex-wife on the street the day after he came to this realization, and in a brief conversation, discovered that she was as bitter and hateful as ever. He, though, was not. George’s prayers hadn’t changed his wife one bit, but they had changed him.
On the strength of George’s recommendation, I pursued the same course, and the results were the same for me. I resolutely started praying for the people who were the sources of my most vexing resentments. It didn’t happen overnight, but in time, those resentments disappeared. Many of those people I haven’t seen since, and they rarely if ever cross my mind. Some I still interact with on a daily basis. Speaking as objectively as I can, some of them are still jerks. Others, though, have turned out not to be the jerks I thought they were back then. In every case, though, I have found that prayer is a sure antidote to anger and resentment, if I pursue it as sincerely and as diligently as I am able.
Occasionally, a resentment is so strong that we feel unable (or unwilling) to ask God to bless our enemies. Even in these cases, prayer can be a first step on the road to healing. Even when we can’t bring ourselves to pray for those who have harmed us, we can at least be willing to no longer be victimized by our resentments. In these cases, simply praying something along the lines of, “God, save me from my anger and resentment,” can start us on the way.
Another practical step is to take concrete action in the direction we want to go. A friend of mine in AA sums this up as “act as if”. Simply stated, we act as if the desired change in our attitude has already occurred. If I want to be more forgiving, I need to act as if I am forgiving, and in time I will become more forgiving. If I want to be more tolerant, I need to act more tolerant, and in time I will become more tolerant. If I want to be more kind, I need to practice acts of kindness and I will eventually become more kind. This may seem like self-deception or insincerity, but it is not. The sincerity of this philosophy is found in the sincere desire to internalize the traits we are acting to acquire. It is true that our actions often grow out of our attitudes, but it is equally true that our attitudes can be shaped by our actions. It has been my experience that it is often easier to act my way into a new way of thinking than it is to think my way into a new way of acting.
Anger and resentment can be devilishly hard to overcome, but it can be done. These painful emotions don’t have to dominate our lives. The experience of millions of recovering human beings shows that we can indeed live happy, joyous and free, if we are honest with ourselves, open-minded about taking action, and willing to let go of our resentments. As the book Alcoholics Anonymous states in its appendix on the spiritual experience, “We find that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program. Willingness, honesty and open-mindedness are the essentials of recovery. But these are indispensable.”