Brick by brick, stone by stone, with each betrayal, with each perceived infraction, we add another brick or stone around our heart to protect it from experiencing more pain. We hold onto the grudge and we never forgive, because to let go means the other people won’t understand how truly unworthy of our affections they really are.
What we don’t see is the physiological manifestations of what happens when that grudge wall hardens our hearts. By not forgiving our enemies, we allow dis-ease to enter our soul and infect us with viruses we never saw coming. Cardiovascular (heart) disease is our number one killer. Plaque builds up in the walls of our arteries. If our minds, bodies, and spirits are connected, quite possibly our emotions are reflected in our bodies. That wall we build on the outside thickens on the inside as well.
In our 3-dimensional world, we pass along only one side of the story, and we infect others with our views. They pass along our side of the story to their friends and family members and the picture they provide is only a third of the truth. The grudge wall congeals. And the message gets passed on much like messages get passed in the “telephone game,” where one player whispers a story to a second person, who then whispers it to a third person, and so on, until the last person repeats aloud the story s/he heard. Like the old telephone game, the story gets twisted and, in the end, sounds nothing like the original story.
Reasons for a different ending are plentiful. Perhaps the listener didn’t actually hear the words and his mind fabricated the misunderstood words. Perhaps the listener decided to embellish what she heard. Or maybe the listener blatantly lied about what he’d heard.
Other factors that affect our ability to relate to the messages we hear and that play a role in determining the way we internalize the messages we receive, are our moods, our actions, our reactions, and even our histories. We have a remarkable tendency to see facial expressions and recognized clenched teeth through telephone lines. But even if the person who causes us anxiety is responsible for our grudges, why do we hang on to that grudge – sometimes forever?
One of my sisters and I engaged in battle quite frequently as kids and when we were in our twenties and thirties, we continued to battle. She invited me to her home during one phone call and I could tell she was clenching her teeth as she made her repeated commands: “Your kids are now allowed upstairs, they are not allowed to touch anything, you will watch everything they do, and you will monitor their every action – do you understand?”
“Yes,” I told her every time she repeated herself.
She continued, “I don’t have to mention these things to (our other sister), but I do have to make sure you understand! Do you!”
At that point, after hearing her admonitions no less than three times, I said, “You know what? I’ll do you a favor. We just won’t come.” And then I hung up.
When my mother heard about the situation, she immediately penned a letter to both of us. In the letter she told us about one of her best friends who had been in a fight with her sister – for decades. The friend never told my mother what the fight was about, so at the wake of her friend, my mother asked the sister what the fight was about. The sister of my mom’s friend responded, “I don’t remember.”
My sister and I made up, and after so many years of wondering what I had done to my sister, I finally asked, “Why do you hate me so much?”
The hesitation in her voice was palpable. I could almost see the words jar her. And the way my sister responded changed my life. She had so much insight into herself in that moment that the words burst out of her like molten lava from a volcano. She admitted that she was jealous of me and she admitted that she had treated me miserably. The funny thing was I had been jealous of her for my whole life too! The realization that jealousy was the basis of our fights was enough to halt the decline in our relationship. And that realization was the turning point for both of us.
Today I see parents fighting with their children, siblings fighting with each other, friends in combat with each other, and the underlying problem is usually much deeper than what appears to be the reason for the fight. We hear one version of the truth, ignore the other two sides, and then we assess the situation based only upon that one-sided explanation.
Every time we hear one version of “the truth,” and we judge the other person involved, we help the storyteller add another brick to her heart. Eventually the grudge wall becomes so thick, no love can enter. Any infraction, small or large, will add thicker layers to the wall that perhaps only a jackhammer can remove. Hardened hearts become etched into deeply creviced faces trenched with scowls and clenched teeth.
But what if something other than a jackhammer can break down the grudge wall? What if forgiveness softens that wall enough to allow all barriers to break down? We have to realize that none of us is perfect and that our perceptions are imperfect as well. What we see is not necessarily what IS. We base our feelings upon what we perceive to be true, so if our perceptions are distorted, anything in our minds that projects from those perceptions becomes warped as well.
Holding onto grudges does not serve us well. Holding onto them burdens us. Letting go allow us to soften our hearts so more love can flow through us. Forgiving does not mean forgetting. But not forgiving reveals more to us about our own characters than it does about the person we can’t seem to forgive.
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Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. ~ Ephesians 4:31-32
“Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” ~ Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
“Child, you do not forgive because the person who wronged deserves it. You misunderstood the point of forgiveness entirely. The only cage that a grudge creates is around the holder of the grudge. Forgiveness is not saying that the person who hurt you was right, or has earned it, or is allowed to hurt you again. All forgiveness means is that you will carry on without the burdens of rage or hatred.” ~ Merrie Haskell, The Castle Behind Thorns
photo of stone wall from Morguefile