She says I’m “holding a grudge.” She says it’s not healthy for me, that she wishes I could “let it go.” She thinks I’m allowing the past to rob my life in the present. She says that I just can’t afford to “hold on” to
this anger and resentment
The thing is, this woman loves me. She would take a bullet for me. She bears me no malice. Her concerns for me and admonitions of me are utterly sincere, with no other motive but my happiness and wholeness.
No other conscious motive, that is.
No, I don’t think she means me any harm. I merely think she doesn’t understand. And, while I can’t be sure, I often wonder if some part of her is afraid to understand. That is, somehow it’s safer for her not to understand.
She’s wrong about me. I’m not holding a grudge. I’m bearing witness. I’m taking a stand.
When the woman and I discuss this topic, which isn’t often, I have often pondered an analogy. I want to ask her if she could imagine herself at the hospice bed of a 90+ year-old survivor of Auschwitz. The old soul, only days from death, recounts a few paragraphs of incredulity and horror about Nazis and concentration camps. Now, imagine yourself leaning over that bed, and saying, “You’re holding a grudge. Let it go. It’s not good to hold on to this anger.”
Because I cannot imagine doing this. For me, it would be gross presumption.
A too-dramatic analogy, you say? I once thought so, too.
I was 32 when I finally got around to entering depth psychotherapy. Which is to say I was 32 before I finally found the psychic wherewithal and personal courage to take my own life seriously. Which meant taking my past seriously. Because I didn’t want to. Like most everyone, I’d spent years minimizing, intellectualizing, hiding, explaining, pretending — no price seemed too high in the effort to keep reality at bay.
Then came the day in therapy I presented a dream which my psyche had gifted to me the night before. In the dream I was a boy riding double on a galloping horse, clutching tightly to the waist of my rescuer, who was an adult male, an orthodox Jew, complete with black hat and sidelocks. We were fleeing a Nazi concentration camp.
My therapist noticed aloud my self-deprecation, discomfort and embarrassment. I told her that it seemed wrong to compare my suffering to the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust. Worse than presumptuous. Worse than arrogant. I tried to obliterate the dream with a diatribe of self-loathing.
She asked simply, “So, are you ashamed of your dream, or ashamed of your suffering?”
Such questions are why my therapist gets the big bucks. I either had to flee the room, or face myself.
My therapist shrugged: “Couldn’t [your past] be your own personal holocaust?”
That question, almost a shrugged aside, changed my life.
I’m not holding a grudge. I’m not even angry any more, per se. I laugh. I play. I largely enjoy my life. My memories of childhood suffering no longer torment me. The memories inspire me. They guide, in part, my commitments and practice as a father. They fuel my advocacy for victims of childhood abuse, and my efforts to teach parents a better way. The only way the memories still enslave me is to demand that I never do nothing when power is used to hurt those who are powerless.
I am committed to nurture just enough remnant anger to fuel an eternal flame, standing vigil at the monument of a deeply meaningful value: It is wrong to hurt children, or to let them be hurt.
The International Monument at Auschwitz-Birkenau was erected in 1967. In front of it are metal plates, each with an inscription. Every major language in Europe is represented. None of the inscriptions say “Let it go” or “Get over it” or “Stop holding grudges” or “You really oughta forgive.” Au contraire. The one in English reads “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity ….”
Uncomfortable. Not exactly something you would read in a greeting card. But vitally important. Meaningful beyond words.
There are unspeakable treasures to be found in hell. And once you’ve held those treasures in your hands, you never want to let them go.
To live well, we don’t banish the darkness. We harness it. And, then, most surprisingly, the darkness casts a bright and holy light on the rich possibilities for the present and future.
Wise, whole and free.
Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column for Marinscope Community Newspapers. You can reach him at email@example.com.