(This article first appeared in Red magazine)
The festive season is nearly upon us — which means that many new grudges will be formed in homes all over the country. Most of us believe we shouldn’t hold grudges, especially at Christmas, but often it’s hard not to. I’ll never forget the Christmas Day I spent with someone who sulked all morning, creating a dark, tense mood that filled the whole house, because someone spilled a glass of water on her rug. That’s right: water. The clear sort that leaves no stain. That was what inspired her to ruin the Christmas morning of five innocent people.
Some people tell me, proudly, that they never hold grudges. As a self-help addict, I understand the importance of forgiving. My bookshelves are full of titles like ‘Love Everyone You Meet, However Awful’. This advice is not practical for ordinary, flawed people like me. I know all the theory by heart (I once took an online test called ‘Are you Enlightened?’ and got the second-highest ranking: ‘Not quite guru-level, but almost’) but for a long time, I found it impossible to practise non-judgemental, enlightened living.
Unfairness was my trigger. Whenever I encountered it, my inner justice-seeker would trample all over my outer meditative pacifist in a manner that was, frankly, brutal. I still have a grudge about the teacher who told me the poem I’d written was ‘too good for a child’ and accused me of plagiarism. I’m still grudging hard for the boss who berated me for not doing something that she had given me express permisison not to do.
After years of grudge-guilt, I finally saw the light: grudges aren’t shameful. They’re wonderful. Now, whenever someone boasts about not holding them, I think, ‘How silly! Grudges are great!’ For example, it’sgreat that I have a grudge about Felix (name changed), who occasionally tries to force me to have dinner with him, then bombards me with bursts of rage and emotional blackmail when I decline his invitations. I need my grudge about Felix to protect me from him.
Grudges are not an obstacle to forgiveness or inner peace; rather, they are the very route to both. Here’s the thing: the angry feelings we associate with grudge-holding actually come from resisting our innate awareness that other people’s poor treatment of us matters. If we give ourselves permission to think, ‘Yes, George treated me unfairly, that’s not okay by me, and I’m going to remember it and behave differently around him in future, to protect myself’, then immediately, rage and bitterness start to dissolve. Why? Because we’ve validated ourselves. We’ve asserted, symbolically, that the transgression against us counts in the world. We deserve to be treated well.
Dictionary definitions of ‘grudge’ unhelpfully conflate grudges with negative feelings, but a grudge isn’t a feeling. It’s a story from our past that we choose to remember because it’s instructive: ‘Doug hits me. I will avoid Doug.’ Our grudges reinforce our value systems: ‘Maureen screams at me whenever I challenge her. I never want to behave like her.’ Grudges can be inspiring: how many people have been determined to succeed after being told they never would? Most importantly, once your grudge is in place, you can afford to forgive Felix, George, Doug and Maureen, and (trust me) you will feel more inclined to do so.
So next time someone tells you, ‘Move on’, say ‘I will – with my grudge to guide me.’ Once you’ve learned how to use grudges correctly, you’ll see how great they can be. Holding a grudge doesn’t make you bitter, and the people who try to pretend it does? Hold a grudge about them! This Christmas, give yourself the gift of permission to hold great grudges for a better life.