Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Resentment and our Civic Life

Needless to say, the inauguration of Barak Obama as the 44th president of the United States has generated a good amount of interest in both in the US and overseas. Some of what has been said or written about President Obama has been laudatory, other things less so.

Reading through the different viewpoints about our new president, it is difficult for me to escape the sense that—whatever else people think about the new administration—much of what is said is fueled by a sense of resentment.

In the spiritual life, and our civic life as well, resentment is a dangerous emotion to which to give in. This is especially the case when there is some justice, some truth, to our resentment.

The danger of resentment is that it parodies repentance, of the sober self-examination that is at the heart of the spiritual life. When I give in to resentment I see the fault as wholly in you, but not in myself. Resentment is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) form of self-aggrandizement. Or, in a word, pride.

St Maximos the Confessor, whose memory the Orthodox Church celebrates today, warns us that whatever we might think, resentment reflects not my neighbor's failure, but my own. My neighbor's fault, he says, is what I use "to justify the evil hatred" that has taken hold of me. The saint continues and tells his monastic readers:

even if you are held by resentment, persist in your praises, and then you will easily return to the same salutary love. Do not, because of your hidden resentment, adulterate your usual praise of your brother in your conversations with the other brethren, surreptitiously intermingling your words with [references to his] shortcomings and condemnation. Instead, make use of unmixed praise and genuinely pray for him, as if you were praying for yourself, and thus you will quickly be delivered from this destructive hatred.

In the context of his own work, Maximos is dealing with gossip and back biting in a monastic community not the life of a citizen in a democracy, much less the increasingly complex world of national and international affairs. Taking his different context into consideration, however, I think that the psychology that underlies St Maximos's teaching is nevertheless applicable not only our spiritual lives, but also the civic realm as well.

Let me explain.

At its core, resentment is not the pain of caused by injustice. Rather, resentment is the unwillingness on my part to see you EXCEPT in terms of how you've hurt me. Not only that, whether the harm is great or small, real or imagined, resentment is also the unwillingness on my part to see myself in any terms other than in the lose I've suffered. The defining characteristic of resent then is the reduction of self and other to the harm done by a moral failure.

None of this is to say that the harm done me is (necessarily) insignificant or unreal. Nor do I mean to imply that the harm should simply be ignored or minimized. But to my resentful heart, the harm becomes if not the whole of the story, the one, indisputable and undeniable fact of my relation with my neighbor, with God and my self.

So what then shall we do? I will attempt an answer in my next post.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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