A week or so ago, I sent a mailing to some readers and friends in which I aired out a few feelings on a subject close to my heart: Holding a grudge.
Specifically, I was trying to weigh the virtue and karmic advantage of forgiveness against the nasty invigoration of staying pissed off and dreaming of, or even plotting, revenge. I was pondering this subject because I’d been searching for a next book idea, and it occurred to me that this could be a central theme. Typically, the notion came to me not in the tidy form of an essay, but in a few scraps of dialogue between Bert the Shirt and his reluctant detective pal, Pete Amsterdam:
“Never trust a guy,” says Bert, “who claims he doesn’t hold a grudge.”
Pete says, “But if he comes right out and says he doesn’t—”
“My point exactly,” the old man counters. “He says he doesn’t. Okay, fine. Why? Why does he say he doesn’t? Why does he even raise the subject? Why does he use the word at all? Grudge, I mean. Why? Because it’s on his mind. If it wasn’t on his mind, he wouldn’t say it, right?”
“So, if a guy says he doesn’t hold a grudge, that automatically means he does?”
“Of course. It’s human nature. Same wit’ no hard feelings. Why would someone say no hard feelings unless there was hard feelings but he was tryin’ to kid himself there wasn’t, kinda tryin’ to choke ‘em down, except ya can’t choke ‘em down forever, because eventually hard feelings will bite back.”
“Okay, okay,” says Pete. “But sometimes people just get over things, right? Or just decide to let them go. Or rise above. Or even forgive. What about forgiveness, Bert? Do you even believe there is such a thing?”
“Forgiveness?” the old man murmurs. “Now you’re gettin’ deep on me, Pete. Lemme think on that a minute.”
Anyway, so I sent those lines to readers and friends (apologies to those of you reading them twice), and I asked people to consider a few basic questions:
Is true forgiveness possible? And, if so, is it necessarily a good thing? Priests and shrinks and gurus are quick to remind us of what we may gain when we forgive–serenity, peace, a chance for a fresh start. But what do we LOSE when we give up a grudge? We give up the chance to get even, sure. But we also give up something to focus on, something that provides meaning and purpose…something to live for! Haven’t you ever felt the sweet burn of a lingering grudge? Wouldn’t you miss it if it went away? If you gave up on revenge, would that be forgiveness or just fatigue? What would fill the slot in your soul where the grudge used to be?
I raised those questions and asked people to share their thoughts if so inclined…and I was absolutely blown away not only by the number and range of responses, but also by how thoughtful and deeply felt many of them were. Clearly, this was a theme that hit a nerve. And, while my little survey was hardly a scientific poll, it did yield some interesting results.
The majority of responses–though less of a majority than you might expect–came down on the side of forgiveness.
Reasons ranged from the religious–whether the Christian imperative to turn the other cheek or the Buddhist and Hindu ideal of letting go–to the kind of hard-earned practical wisdom that sometimes takes years of struggle or therapy to acquire; namely, that one forgives as a necessary kindness to oneself, and not necessarily to the person forgiven.
But quite a number of you, sometimes with tongue in cheek, stood up for your cherished grudges.
Arguments in favor sometimes boiled down to the simple dictum Don’t get mad, get even. But other reasoning was more elaborate. One Catholic reader observed that, while the faith required seeking forgiveness from God, that had nothing to do with forgiving the lousy bastard who done you wrong. He further suggested that, even within the Church, Italians should be exempted from forgiving on the grounds that it runs smack up against the time-honored cultural tradition of the vendetta. Anyone who’s ever seen an Italian opera will understand this line of thought. Another respondent was candid enough to admit that, even at that very moment, she was savoring a blissful revenge fantasy against a long-ago transgressor.
And one reader sent me this beautiful quote from Mark Twain:
“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
Honestly, I have no idea what that means, but isn’t it gorgeously phrased? In any case, what is one to make of this range of opinions about forgiveness versus grudges? For me, the central takeaway is clear, as it’s the only thing that the forgivers and the avengers seem to agree on:
Forgiveness takes a lot of long, hard work, but holding a grudge comes naturally as breathing.
What this says about the difficult and contrary race known as human beings, I’m really not sure. But it’s something I’ll be thinking a lot about in the upcoming months. Which is to say, I guess I’m stuck with the idea. Anyway, my deep thanks to everyone who weighed in with feelings and opinions. Stay safe, pick your battles and your enemies with care, and please keep reading!
Today we can certainly observe the king (president) of “Grudge’ and the outcome of this type of behavior. While his behavior may be in the extreme for him, it does demonstrate the malice behind it. While most of us have levels of these types feeling, it’s the recognition of them that can help us moderate or not act on them. Just saying, or perhaps getting even!
Giving up a grudge can be a selfish gesture. Without the grudge, physicians tell us that blood pressure may subside, harmful cortisol levels in the brain give way to more positive, relaxing endorphins, road rage may disappear, and feelings of well being may replace anxiety and anger. -just sayin’
Why stop with just HOLDING a grudge? Why not spread it around? Bully people. Get into a position of power and influence and then REALLY bully people? Oh … wait … didn’t you write a book about that? Doesn’t the main character look an awful lot like someone holding presidential power/??
Maybe bullying should be the next topic of discussion..Can you truly be bullied if you don’t allow someone to bully you, or do you just enjoy the attention of being a victim?
Good and subtle questions. Lots of gray areas there…
I do feel that “holding a grudge” is foolish (ain’t got time for that), and probably more harmful to the holder, with the possible exception of those who can craft a truly elegant pay-back. That being said, the joy felt as the Big Wheel of Karma rolls around and lays the sum-bitch low, is perfectly acceptable.
It’s the “elegant payback” that makes caper novels fun!
Hi Laurence. You should know that that “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it” is not a Mark Twain quotation. Here’s what I wrote about it in the FORGIVENESS section of my “Dr. Mardy’s Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations”(https://www.drmardy.com/dmdmq/f#forgiveness):
“This is a classic orphan quotation, widely attributed to Twain (as well as to some others) in order to enhance its credibility. However, there is no evidence that Twain ever said or wrote anything like it, and no other original author has ever been found. In 1909, an early version of the quotation appeared in The Judge, a legal magazine which quoted an unnamed blind girl as describing forgiveness this way: “It is the fragrance of a flower after it is crushed.”
Thanks, Mardy. Nice to have a world-class quotations maven on the team!
And–to anyone not already familiar with Mardy’s work–I heartily recommend his weekly newsletter. It’s been a regular part of my Sunday mornings for several years now. Always informative, always entertaining!
We’ve got a Chief Executive who proudly and nakedly asserts his right to hold a grudge (no federal school funds for those who don’t reopen classrooms, sending “troops” to Red states, etc.). Some people actually applaud that.
CM Kenney O'Rourke
An additional thought on the quote attributed to Mark Twain. Anyone who has ever found their garden or lawn sprouting violets (a virulent weed in the northeast), knows that they have no fragrance. Mardy’s comment about the quote referring to “a flower” is probably closer to the truth.
Our Florida weeds are all on steroids this time of year. Most have thorns or will make you break out, or they’re totally invasive like the $%%^ Bahia that sprouts 12″ stems with seeds almost overnight. A weed to definitely hold a grudge against; I pull the runners out with pliers but it’s winning. What I’d give for violets 🙂
Hopefully, when someone “does you wrong,” you learn from that experience. So, does the “knowledge” mean you’re still holding a grudge? Maybe knowing that you can’t trust someone is powerful enough revenge.
there is a difference between holding a grudge, and becoming aware that you are vulnerable. The decision to protect yourself from further damage should not be construed as payback.