There are few things that make me ruminate like the abrupt endings of relationships. In fact, there is little that matters more to me than reconciliation, forgiveness and harmony with the people that I value and love. Still, I have my challenges, and like most of us have dealt with relationship endings, some from distance and changing occupations, others from abrupt and hurtful changes of heart. The latter are the ones that I get stuck on, especially when I am struggling to befriend myself. It is easy to get stuck in these ruts, which fester into self doubt and shame for months or even years, playing scenes over in the mind, looking for a reason. We want to identify where the break happened, the moment we go from being loveable to becoming undesirable; the moment when a heart hardens against us.
I know that I am not alone in this search. Betrayal is such a profoundly jarring event to our sense of self that we long to understand it and bring order to it with chronology… This happened and then this… but I suspect that even the people who make the choice to turn away, to deny their love, to cheat or humiliate or abandon someone they had once loved could not pinpoint the precise moment when something broke in them. I think this is because it doesn’t happen in a moment usually, but rather happens slowly, where our previous vulnerability is perceived as a threat.
This is perhaps the most common character flaw that human beings possess, this capacity to harden our hearts where they were once vulnerable. Not surprisingly, the more intimate you once were to a person is proportional to the intensity with which you close off to them. Hardening our heart against someone is judgment amplified until it becomes a grudge. Holding a grudge diminishes our perspective until it closes off all light to what happened before. Grudges are a kind of heart pathology, and we witness what this behavior generates in war zones. People who were once affable neighbors grow to hate each other with the same measure of vengeance that they once had intimacy.
This is the one instance where our capacity for intimacy becomes the fuel for closing off our hearts. What most people don’t realize about the weight of grudges is that we don’t have the surgical accuracy you might initially imagine when it comes to shutting off our hearts. When our hearts close in any direction, they in fact close in all directions. Grudges, arguably the emotional pathology of our species, can and do last for generations, which are why this character flaw is so frequently represented in our cultural history of love, from Shakespeare to contemporary films. This is one of the greatest values of art, the way that it mirrors our deepest struggles in the hopes of setting us free.
The truth is that the only way out of a grudge is from the inside. Nothing external can will another person to give up this deeply entrenched mechanism of self protection, which becomes part of the personality over time. This is why it is a character flaw. What we initially construct as a defensive device ends up limiting our heart’s ability to experience vast swaths of the world. Choosing the freedom of feeling requires that we witness what we have traded for our protection. Remembering is the actual process of putting ourselves back together, uniting ourselves anew with our hearts.
The tragedy of our grudges is that they don’t hurt others nearly the way that they hurt the people who hold them. A grudge isn’t really against someone else, it is a wall against our own capacity to love, to have compassion, to connect. And it makes us sick. For in truth, there is nothing that is unforgiveable about us. We are all equally flawed in our own unique way.This fatal character flaw is the most dangerous one of all.