I don’t have time to write this now, and yet here I’m writing it anyway. That’s probably a sign that it will be poorly done. I was going to make a note of it and get back to it later, when I had more time and inclination to do it right. But then I realized I already have a bunch of notes like that and, often, when you go back to something, it’s hard to reconstruct why it seemed like such a big deal at the time. The thoughts are fresh to me now, and I think I’d better do what I can with them now — and then, maybe, someday, come back and revise.
For starters, let me try to be clear on my terminology. Maybe I can clarify the concept of bitterness, and also organize the thoughts giving rise to this post, by commenting on a Psychology Today article by Leon Seltzer (2015). Seltzer, paraphrased, says this:
All bitterness starts out as hurt. And your emotional pain may well relate to viewing whomever provoked this hurt as having malicious intent. For anger—and its first cousin, resentment—is what we’re all likely to experience whenever we conclude that another has seriously abused us. Left to fester, that righteous anger eventually becomes the corrosive ulcer that is bitterness. Bitterness is a state of smoldering resentment, a destructive emotion arising from the act of nursing a grudge. Ultimately, it is an obsession, consisting of self-righteously considering ourselves morally superior to that other person, and blaming him/her for our misery—rather than refusing to permit external hindrances or setbacks from blocking us from pursuing our goals.
That last clause draws on the adage, “Living well is the best revenge.” Seltzer’s advice is to focus on one’s goals, and not be distracted by bad experiences along the way. That advice is partly good and partly bad. Certainly the achievement of goals requires focus. Yet if nobody focuses on the bad experiences, then nothing prevents actual criminals from victimizing everyone. Somebody, somewhere, has to take responsibility for paying serious attention to the bad experiences that hurt good people. Seltzer’s view seems to be that that’s somebody else’s job. I’m not so sure. I think it may work better for all of us — it may be a lot easier to prevent serious violations of the rules — if we all do our share: be good, help good people, and try to deter wrongdoing in the present moment, rather than leaving it for somebody else to deal with.
It is ironic that I would say that, because what gives rise to the feelings at hand — feelings that, I think, could be called “bitter” — is the behavior of relatives who, I’m sure, believe they are doing what I just said: they are favoring the good and resisting the bad. The problem is that, to them, I am the bad.
That may be a common situation. It may well be that most people who wrong others actually believe they are doing the right thing. Yes, to use the word I used a moment ago, there are real criminals, and there is a need to resist them. But I suspect far more evil is done by people who think they have figured out who is good and who is bad, and they are trying to take responsibility for standing against the bad, as I just suggested.
What makes me bad, in the eyes of my relatives, is that I am the product of both my mother and my father. Mom’s side of the family came from fairly purebred German Lutheran stock. I was raised in a conservative branch of the Lutheran church, so I am relatively familiar with the mindset. Basically, there is a right and a wrong way to do things, and the wrong way is Disapproved. To illustrate with a relatively trivial example, you can imagine my brother and me chuckling, in mild amazement, at the words of one old lady to another, on the streets of Kendallville, Indiana, where we were born. I think it was 1980; as I recall, Wade had come back to visit the folks from his home in Los Angeles, and I from New York City. We went into town — into K-ville, as we called it — and took a sort of nostalgia tour around town on roller skates. And at one point, as we passed those old ladies, the one said, “What gives those boys the right to skate in the street like that?” I mean, it was an empty street and smooth pavement. To a skater, it was an open invitation. But to her, this was Unlawful.
It’s like what a comedian from Iowa once said, describing what it was like to grow up there. After finishing high school, “some time passed before I realized we were free to leave.”
I don’t mean to overstate the rule-bound, follow-in-the-footsteps mentality of midwestern German Lutherans. It was more like that back then; in some families it is still like that. The point here is that there was a decided contrast between Mom’s side and Dad’s side. Mom and her three siblings were always cordial and, I think, almost always kind to each other. They grew up around K-ville, and they all stayed there. I don’t think any of them ever lived more than ten miles from any of the others. And yet, when Mom was enduring the decades of Hell that constituted living in the same house with Dad, she didn’t feel that she could confide at length in her brother or her three sisters. There was cordiality; there was easy trust on practical matters; but there was never that closeness of friends who share their secrets.
Maybe that was due, in Dad’s case, to the fact that Mom’s entire family rejected him. To listen to people talk nowadays, you’d think that the whites of this world were all in cahoots against the nonwhites — as if there had never been a world war starting among whites in Europe. It is an ignorance that would have been unbelievable to the generations that fought those wars. The fact is that humans can always find an excuse to divide against each other. Skin color works, but if that’s not handy (and even when it is), economic status will do. Hell, just saying “hell” will do. For, in marked contrast against the orderly, quietly judgmental middle-class piety of Mom’s side, Dad’s side was poor, profane, and contentious — not to mention scarred, figuratively and, to varying degrees, literally, by hard lives starting in the home of their own even more brutal father. Dad’s siblings did mostly stay in the area, though in my mind they will forever exemplify a real or imagined contrast between Kendallville’s relatively thriving Noble County and what I grew up perceiving as their somewhat poorer DeKalb County of Auburn and especially Garrett.
When Mom’s family rejected Dad, they were doing the judgmental, enforce-the-rules thing they had been taught, but in the process they made themselves useless to Mom. After all, she was married to the man and, within the scope of her workable options, that’s where she had to stay. A sibling who can’t even talk to him, because he is too different, is not going to be of much use for purposes of trying to help her understand and respond effectively to him. The four families on Mom’s side did get together occasionally, when we were kids, but the other three never accepted Dad, and thus they accepted us only to the extent that we joined them in rejecting him. They seemed to find him entertaining, to some extent — his extroversion, such as it was; his opinions, his stories — but ultimately those qualities were not redemptive in their view.
You might say the topic of bitterness arises, here, in my reaction to the behavior of relatives who felt they were too good for Dad, and also for me, because I, too, was not inclined to behave as they expected. For one thing, having lived not only with Dad but also with Mom, I concluded that, like her siblings, her reactions and expectations were out of touch with reality. Dad was a hard force. You weren’t going to get anywhere with him by pleading and being upset. She really didn’t. What I saw, over and over again, during childhood, was that, due apparently to the narrowness of her upbringing, she simply did not, and possibly could not, understand what would make him mad, or what he was complaining about. Granted, he was extreme and unreasonable. But if you’ve decided you’re in for the duration, merely adjudging him extreme and unreasonable is not going to solve your problems.
Ironically, things did not turn out as one might expect, for these two families. Dad’s many and fractious siblings, half of whom were seemingly not speaking to the other half at any moment, had their family get-togethers too, just like Mom’s side. The difference is that those get-togethers persisted, or were renewed, by the next generation. The Woodcocks still get together, every three years, and they seem to believe in their extended family. One of my cousins on Dad’s side has posted a website with various historical and present-day family photos; another circulates an updated family tree book every year. That book now lists more than 500 names, starting with Dad’s parents and continuing down to the latest newborns. On Mom’s side — the side of the siblings who were always cordial to each other — there is, relatively speaking, nothing: no reunion, no website, no list, not even an attempt in this online era to keep in touch digitally. As one might surmise from the fact that Mom couldn’t treat her siblings as confidants, the niceness was superficial; it had no depth.
What do I mean by depth? In another post, I offer a quote from an earlier German, writing in a book that contributed to the anti-semitism resulting in Hitler’s Final Solution. That German, a writer named Fritsch, complained of Jewish practices at what would today be the local grain elevator, where farmers sell their produce:
The Hebrew, who goes to the Produce Exchange . . . takes very good care to conceal his real intention. He assumes an attitude of complete indifference; and, if anyone offers him wheat, he replies, shrugging his shoulders: “Wheat? I have enough wheat” . . . . A simple or open-natured farmer, on the contrary, who has gone to the Produce Exchange, in order to get rid of his produce . . . will at once offer his wheat eagerly. . . . In the end the farmer is glad to have found a purchaser at any price . . . . Several days later, when the supplies have been, for the greater part, bought up by the Hebrews, one notices a marked rise in prices. . . .
The principle of ruthless selfishness has obtained the mastery, and the right of the individual to enrich himself, by any and every means, has established itself, even if the rest of the community suffer grievously thereby.
I don’t know if Fritsch was correct, in that characterization of the differences between Jewish grain merchants and Gentile farmers in early 20th-century Germany. I do know that, if his perspective were held by people on Mom’s side of the family — or perhaps I should say, to the extent that his perspective is held by today’s midwestern German Lutheran farmers — their response would not be to engage the Jews, to push back, to treat them as accepted members of the community who may need admonition, aided perhaps by laws against sharp dealing. Rather, as in my own dealings with members of Mom’s side, starting with Mom’s parents, those Jews would encounter the more rigid and clannish exclusion that Dad and I encountered. Instead of a belief that we belonged, demonstrated in efforts to talk to us and an evident desire to befriend us, we would find — we found, and I continue to find — a disrespect that says, it would be just as well if you didn’t exist.
I mention the Jews because, when I moved to NYC, it was extraordinarily instructive to live among and interact with them. I had not previously experienced a mindset — an extremely intelligent mindset, in my view — in which everything (except Israel, I suppose, and Hitler and such) was open to question and discussion. In retrospect, I have concluded that the NYC style was flawed, insofar as it often seemed oriented, not toward actual truthseeking, but rather toward refining the ways in which one could win arguments, right or wrong. I did not experience a consistent commitment to truth at any cost. Still, it was very far ahead of the know-nothing mentality in which I was raised, in which one simply didn’t talk about the most important and difficult things. As I say, in my view, Mom’s style just didn’t work.
This sort of thing can continue to have consequences. For instance, it has been perplexing, to me, to consider the differences between myself and a certain relative on Mom’s side. Both of us were trained in mental health work. But we seem to differ profoundly in our attitudes toward people. Speaking on behalf of Dad’s side of the family, I would say an advantage of being relatively scrambled, socioeconomically and perhaps also genetically, is that you’re less inclined toward a purebred assumption of your own superiority. I mean, everyone thinks their way is superior; the difference is that some people are at least able to talk about it. I am sure this relative has been effective with the clients who were already doing pretty well, who were much like her, and perhaps also with minorities for whom she would consciously make a special effort. But, having known her since we were kids, I suspect that most clients who don’t share her middle-class priorities have tended to receive inferior treatment. Mental health workers are only human, but some do strive to recognize and overcome barriers to effective helping, and in my experience she is just not that type.
So Mom’s side of the family has not been very adaptive to people who aren’t content with a shallow niceness — who, perhaps from experience, want to know whether there’s any genuine friendliness or commitment underlying it. Contrary to what Seltzer says, I don’t think bitterness necessarily entails holding a grudge. I don’t have any grudges against members of Mom’s family. If they got over themselves, I’d be delighted to start, immediately, to contribute to a functioning relationship, one in which we could talk about challenging matters, such as the perceptions outlined above. Who knows? Maybe I would find I have misunderstood them in some way. Maybe they would express an affection for me that I have never detected. I am open to all that, and also to the expected reality in which those maybes aren’t so.
To me, the fact that I hold no grudge does not mean I’m not bitter. The bitterness arises, in this case, from the conviction that, by now, the relatives I’m talking about are either old (i.e., at least my age, 62, give or take) or dead. They haven’t changed; they don’t want to change; they can’t even comprehend why they should change. I’ve tried to engage several of them, over the years, and they just aren’t interested. The bitterness comes from the realization that, to them, it’s more gratifying to be cold than kind, to those who won’t or can’t be part of their circle; indeed, it’s better to gossip destructively about someone than to talk directly to them. As a person who has often been the outcast or misfit, I have no patience for that sort of tribalism. I am hostile to shunning. Not that we don’t all do it; not to deny it might play a constructive role in certain situations; but I wouldn’t make a habit of it, and they do, as their parents did in Dad’s generation.
Seltzer (above) identifies certain undesirable consequences of bitterness. Among other things, he says, it can lead to anxiety or depression, prevent you from experiencing the joys of living in the present, deepen your distrust and cynicism, contribute to a sense of pessimism, turn others away from you, interfere with cultivating satisfying relationships, lead you to doubt your connection to others, weaken your ideals, adversely impact your personal search for meaning in life, rob you of energy needed to achieve your goals, produce physical health problems, raise your stress baseline and thereby overload your immune system, blind you from recognizing your own role in being vindictively harmed by others, place you in the helpless status of victim, and further inflame your wrath. “Even in the face of the gravest injustice,” he says, “redirecting your focus inwards is precisely how you go about empowering (or reimpowering) yourself.”
No doubt extreme bitterness, or perhaps an extreme of any negative emotion or state of mind, can have consequences like those that Seltzer enumerates. But to focus particularly on the last item in Seltzer’s list, the idea of countering “the gravest injustice” by “redirecting your focus inwards” is a bit crazy. No need for police, then, or for laws at all? The more constructive and less selfish response is, surely, to use one’s bitterness as a motivation to seek good laws, and good rules on a smaller scale (e.g., at home), and to seek their enforcement. Let’s start by insuring that the person or entity that wronged us can’t do it again, and that others won’t have to experience what we’ve experienced. Let’s go beyond the extremely self-centered attitude Seltzer recommends. Once we’ve corrected the problem that led to our bitterness, we can ask whether it’s time to let it go.
Seltzer confuses cause and consequence. Contrary to his interpretation, what deepens the wronged person’s depression, pessimism, stress, and so forth is not their own bitterness; it is the wrongful act that created a wronged person. Many people have found that resisting such wrongs does not generate helplessness, as he claims, but rather that campaigning against the evils they have experienced can be empowering. It can give their lives focus — not just in a negative sense, but in introducing them to fellow travelers who have experienced something similar, and in leading to the creation of ideas, organizations, practices, and structures that improve life for all. The status of victim does not necessarily mean helplessness. It can be a first step toward a cure.
I don’t mean to dismiss Jesus’s advice to turn the other cheek. I have not focused extensively on that advice in my own life, nor have I researched its possible benefits. But within the world as it is, and within the experience of most people so far, that’s not a wise all-purpose rule. In some situations, turning your other cheek — refusing to defend yourself — means extermination. There are people in this world who do wish to extinguish the social, financial, and even physical lives of others. In response to that unfortunate reality, Seltzer leads us down the wrong path:
Virtually every writer who has weighed in on the subject of bitterness has discussed its ultimate remedy in terms of forgiveness. For forgiveness alone enables you to let go of grievances, grudges, rancor and resentment. It’s the single most potent antidote for the venomous desire for retributive justice poisoning your system. . . .
If, fundamentally, anger intimates an almost irresistible impulse toward revenge, then forgiveness is mostly about renouncing such vindictiveness. And it can hardly be overemphasized that when you decide to forgive your perceived wrongdoer, you’re doing so not so much for them but for yourself. . . .
Did the person who hurt you really consciously intend to treat you maliciously? Did they really have a personal vendetta against you? Or might their motive simply have been self-interested—that is, being so centered on their own particular needs and desires, they were oblivious to your own? . . .
[E]ven if the other person has been guilty of intentionally hurting you for no reason other their own perverse satisfaction, it still makes sense to forgive them.
Seltzer seems, by this point, to have conflated bitterness with vindictiveness. That was not included in the original definition: relevant words (e.g., vindicate, avenge, revenge) do not appear in the definitional part of his article, nor in the definition at Dictionary.com. It appears, rather, that Seltzer has built a straw man, a corrupted version that he uses in a false attempt to discredit the genuine article. Bitterness does not necessarily imply a desire to get even.
To return to the example of the Jewish experience, let us consider that Seltzer is a common Jewish surname. As such, his views are perhaps atypical. When the postwar Jews vowed Never Again and Never Forget, they weren’t endorsing a campaign of revenge on Germany or the Nazis. For them, Seltzer’s advice would certainly ring hollow. It is true that a permanent remembrance of evil can become a rationalization for new evil. Among other things, some of Israel’s acts deserve condemnation. Bitterness is not an entitlement. But Seltzer’s advice to avoid the adverse consequences of bitterness by simply forgiving the other person is a bit crazy.
In the present case, we have me, reflecting on the impression that I have become embittered by the vicious ostracism that my supposedly nice maternal relatives have inflicted upon my father and me — not because we actually wronged them but, to the contrary, because we recognized that their smug sense of superiority could have adverse consequences, for us and for others. Such consequences were not necessarily limited to hateful gossip and social exclusion, though these relatives were certainly comfortable with that. Rather, unfortunately, the consequences could be physical and even existential. As an example, due to their impulse to circle the wagons in defense of their own, some of them facilitated the placement of my mom — their own blood — into the worst nursing home in town. One consequence is that, after Dad died, Mom was left alone. She wanted to die too, and within the year she did. Would that have been the case if these clannish relatives had thought of her rather than themselves — if they had overruled the wrongdoers and had supported my insistence that she should be placed into the much better nursing home for which she and Dad had already made arrangements, and where they had friends?
The xenophobia of German Lutheran congregations in our area drove out some really decent ministers and their families. In our congregation, the self-congratulation of the leading families eventually, predictably turned cannibalistic, driving out a substantial number of their own members. In microcosm, sadly, that is the history of the Christian church, forever turning on itself in a perpetual splintering of its potential coherence. That mentality was absorbed into and emulated by Mom’s family. In effect, it was excommunicate the heretic.
So I don’t think Seltzer is on the right track. I don’t see that bitterness implies vindictiveness, nor do I agree that a moral person will readily discard his/her sense of being wronged in order to indulge some extraordinarily selfish New Age B.S. And that’s true even if Seltzer’s theory works. To my eyes, it usually doesn’t: people may think they’ve gotten over it, but then they encounter a trigger or see an opportunity, and it all comes back, raw and undigested. Better, I say, to deal with reality in real time.
So here’s where I come out: I agree it is possible to be bitter about trivia, to inflate small grievances, and to let grievances of any size take a sick control of one’s life and priorities. There does seem to be a difference between healthy and unhealthy levels of, or abilities for, forgiveness, perspective, acceptance, focus on one’s priorities, and so forth. In such regards, Seltzer has a point. One should not just dismiss his perspective.
But that is not the same as saying that the best rule in life is just to do whatever makes you happy, and to hell with everyone else. To the contrary, it seems important to recognize when someone has wronged oneself or others; to strive to prevent and undo such wrongs, to the extent feasible; and to add the memory of such wrongs and responses to the individual and collective store of remembered experiences, so as to be prepared for the day when that sort of thing becomes an issue again. Wrongs can scar a person. Hyping victimhood can unnecessarily aggravate those scars. But that does not mean that one should have the scars removed, or that doing so will correct everything that went wrong. Sometimes scars are a badge of honor; often they are a useful reminder. They are ugly — but then, so is much of life. That’s not the way I want it. That’s just the way it is.