We talk about gratitude a lot. We know it’s what we are supposed to feel when we reflect on our life. I know it’s what I’d like my kids to express more of. We imagine it as a pure well of feeling, the milk of human kindness. However we don’t talk about gratitude’s ugly step-sister very much, even though most of us receive regular visits from her. Resentment, the uncomfortable feeling of hugging bitterness for others to ourselves, is not something that we keep a journal about. We don’t record or treasure our bitter feelings. We shrug them off, hoping they’ll stay that way. We don’t sit down late at night with a cup of hot something and write down the five things that made us feel resentful that day.
Resentment is the cup of poison that you pour for another and then drink yourself. This is why it can’t be shrugged off. Because once we’ve taken it in to ourselves it becomes part of us. Even if we’ve done nothing wrong, we’ve had bad thoughts, and so at some level are guilty of them.
Lately my teenage daughter has taken to resenting her elder brother. She resents that he has finished school and is doing what he supposedly wants to do. She resents his freedom and even his fitness. After a long illness that has left her feeling weaker, she wishes that she had more of what he seems to have – life force or whatever you want to call it. Even though, from my point of view, my daughter has no cause to resent her brother. Can’t she see the strengths in herself that everyone else can plainly see?
Over the years I too have had my resentments. For a long time I resented my more successful, better educated, better travelled husband. Just as I resented certain more worldly, more self-assured and go-ahead friends. Of course I didn’t think a bit well of myself for feeling resentful in this way. I felt small and slightly ashamed of myself. I have so many advantages, I’d say to myself, how could I possibly resent the successes of others?
Just like my daughter, fearful of her looming exams, I’d negatively compare myself with my successful husband and friends to the degree that I felt insecure about my own prospects. (‘We cannot perceive objects in themselves’, wrote Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, ‘but only in relation to an anchor point.) When my children were young, and my husband seemed to be galloping ahead in his career, resentment of his success seemed the rational response. It seemed common sense that I might resent his advantages – his network of mentors, his work ethic and his disregard for domestic responsibility.
But then something happened which, at the time, I barely noticed. My husband and I drifted into a traditional marriage and over a few years my resentments dried up. The more empowered I felt in my work and at home the less I compared myself to him. We moved into such different spheres that comparisons became irrelevant. I didn’t stop caring about what my husband thought of me. And I still reacted when he corrected me or asked for clarification on something. However my compass had moved – which meant that his opinions, or more precisely what I imagined were his opinions, were no longer the anchor point by which I measured my own worth.
Has this made me stronger? Perhaps. Certainly it has made me more relaxed. And I definitely feel more grateful for the life I actually live. Because just as resentment is a sign of a bruised ego, gratitude reflects a content soul. This is why I know it’s useless for me to tell my daughter to be grateful, in the ‘pull yourself together and be thankful for your blessings’ sort of way. As a loving mother I do feel this – sometimes my exasperation when she is moody for no reason is colossal. However mostly I manage to curb my exasperation. Because I know that not expressing gratitude is not the same as being ungrateful – as my own mother sometimes made me feel. I know that when your gratitude is blocked by resentment there is nothing to be done but to wait for the resentment to dissolve.
My daughter doesn’t need to be made to watch a documentary on orphaned children in Syria. It’s not my job to make her grateful for her materially blessed life. Because when she resents her brother’s freedoms she is talking about something more intimate than the daily conditions of her life. Rather she is saying to me, ‘Look, this is where I feel bruised. This is where I need to heal. So please don’t press on this place and make it worse’.
Thankfully my daughter is healing. When, before school yesterday, she spied in an email a photo of her brother jumping off a tall ship into blue Atlantic waters, it wasn’t resentment that she automatically felt. Envy perhaps, but not resentment. Because these days, whether she knows it or not, her compass is shifting. She still orients herself via fixed points – clever/stupid, strong/weak, fat/thin. However her hold on them is loosening. And as she lets them go, and mourns the certainties of childhood, the more relaxed and playful she becomes – and the more she plays the piano.