I won’t weigh you down with a sob story, but suffice it to say that I had one of the worst childhoods I have ever heard of. My parents did not seem to even notice that I skipped over the whole emotion-social development phase from five to fifteen. The first several years of adulthood were not much better, and I am often surprised I never committed suicide.
So I’ve dealt with a lot of disappointment in life. There have been a lot of people I trusted and relied upon who deeply let me down, usually without admitting it. Then there are just the people who I don’t like and never did but had to be around anyway. Since American Christianity is totally worthless, I’ve had to learn on my own how to deal with bitterness.
1. One thing that has really helped me is realizing that bitterness is a form of envy. You wish you could have hurt the other person as much as they have hurt you. There are two problems with this. For one thing, there is a good chance you already have hurt them. More than that, though, if you are going to envy a person, then you must envy every part of their life.
The aspects of a person’s life don’t exist in isolation from each other. Everyone wants to be rich and famous, but no one wants the loneliness and mistrust that comes from that. Every woman wants to be knock-out gorgeous, but they don’t want the constant fake compliments and self-serving personalities surrounding them.
So that person who hurt you, do you envy all of their life? Usually the answer is no. They often have a terrible marriage. They are paranoid about their friends or feel hemmed into a career they hate. Perhaps they are just petty and get their pride hurt over the smallest things. They lack any kind of self-awareness and have a fake group of sycophant followers.
If the person isn’t enviable, then you shouldn’t be bitter. You would like to have the power to hurt others like they have hurt you, but they only have that power because they are fundamentally broken people.
Most evil people in the world are more like Gollum than like Sauron. If you hate Barack Obama, just remember that he has to wake up next to Michelle every morning.
2. It’s important to take time to analyze what happened. How much of it was your fault, what are the possible what-ifs, what are the warning signs you should have seen, what will you do differently in the future, etc. Once you finish that analysis, then you need to quit thinking about it. It doesn’t do any good to replay the movie in your head for the next five years. And you will drive yourself insane thinking about how much worse it could have been if a few small contingencies had been different.
If you cannot forgive, then at least try to forget. Learn what you can from it and then quit thinking about it. Daydreaming, whether forwards into the future or backwards into the past, is a horrible vice that will swallow your life.
You should also realize that this probably wasn’t an accident. Whatever you did to get yourself into this mess — even if you are only 5% to blame — you will probably do again. Saying “I’m not the kind of person who does that” about something you’ve done is lying to yourself, and there is no lie so dangerous as the lies we tell ourselves.
It also doesn’t matter exactly how much is each person to blame. You will never be able to work out the exact proportions of blame. Even if you have the majority of the blame, the hurt you experience is still real. You cannot rationalize your emotions away. And often what we think we are hurt over is just a surface issue for something deeper that the other person has done that we aren’t able to vocalize.
3. American Christianity prizes niceness above everything else. This is the definition of love and forgiveness and patience and kindness and any kind of fruit of the Spirit.
I hate nice guys for the same reason women hate nice guys. I don’t claim to be a nice person, and I would be offended if you accused me of being nice. I view myself more like the grumpy woman working at the truck stop in The Grapes of Wrath.
You should realize that most memories are not bittersweet. If you had a falling out with someone you deeply cared about, you are not going to fondly look back on the good times. Mutual friends will drag up what happened years ago and then be shocked that you sound bitter. But that doesn’t mean that you are bitter. It’s just a bad memory, and no amount of time will ever make it a good memory or change your opinion about the person. You may not think about it anymore, but it still hurt you. Pretending that it didn’t really matter is a lie.
Obi-Wan Kenobi is pure fiction. He couldn’t go through the kind of heartbreak and disappointment he had with Anakin and then twenty years later smile fondly about him and be totally emotionless in a lightsaber duel.
Being hurt is an emotion. Emotions aren’t sinful in themselves. What is sinful is letting them control you. That’s true whether you are experiencing anger, joy, sadness, disgust, or fear.
4. Sadness is an essential part of the human experience. It is through sadness that we connect with other people. Joy is usually self-focused, but it is in sadness that we reach out to the world and bond over sharing each other’s loads. You will never be an emotionally mature person if you do not know how to accept suffering.
The atheist claims God cannot exist because there are bad things in the world, but really he is just angry that God did not give him the perfect hedonist paradise he demands. All beauty comes through suffering. Heaven is a place without sorrow, but no one except an infant can enter Heaven without having suffered in some measure and wept over their sins. The atheist can never understand the connection between suffering and beauty, and so he accuses the Christian of being masochistic or needing an opiate.
My favorite Twilight Zone episode is “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” (season 5, episode 17). It is about a utopian future in which everyone is happy all the time. The minute they feel a little distressed, they have a glass of Instant Smile and feel upright again. The main character says she doesn’t like Instant Smile and sometimes would like to frown or even cry, and none of the other characters can understand why. It would be too lengthy to go into detail on everything I love about this episode, but one of its core messages is that without sadness you cannot possess the capacity to love other people.
5. It is only in suffering that we grow as Christians. The American protestant says to never pray for patience, because God only teaches you patience in suffering and suffering is just an inconvenience to be waited out.
This is totally backwards. Through suffering, you learn endurance. Through endurance, you learn humility. Through humility, you learn love. Beliefs and character traits aren’t so much something you mentally agree to as they are something internalized. Understanding how much you don’t matter is something that only comes through experience. And only when you understand how much you don’t matter can you share others’ burdens. To demand a life free from disappointment is to put up a stone wall around your heart and live in total isolation of the soul.
Suffering is the purpose of the Christian life. The invitation of Christ is for us to come and suffer. This is one reason he endured such a painful death, to model for us how to quietly endure the worst that others put us through. If sanctification is salvation, then God allows suffering in the world for the sake of your literal salvation. That is why the epistle of James says to “count it all joy” when you endure disappointment. To be Christlike is to love others, and beauty can only come through suffering.