(this article first appeared on the ‘Medium’ website)
A few years ago, I went to Exeter in South West England for a work-related event. It was an evening event, and there was no possibility of me getting home the same night. Luckily, I had close friends, a married couple named Michael and Linda, who lived a short drive from Exeter — friends I’d known for many years. They had a spare room and were only too happy to put me up for the night. They also had a dog, Hobart, a small border terrier who liked to nestle in warm places: his bed, other people’s beds, amid piles of woolly sweaters in drawers and wardrobes.
Michael was obsessive about Hobart. In order to relax, he needed to know, at all times, where in the house Hobart was. Even if he had no reason to fear for the dog’s safety or well-being, it wasn’t enough for Michael to know that Hobart was somewhere or other nearby; he had to know Hobart’s exact location.
On this particular night, I arrived at Michael and Linda’s house at around 10:00, and we all had a cup of tea together. At 11, I said that I was going to bed. Eleven is early by my normal standards, but at the time I had two children under three years old. I explained to Michael and Linda that I was exhausted, that I had to get up early to drive home the next day, and that I wanted to make the most of this night that would be blissfully free of interruptions from babies and toddlers. Then I went to bed and sank into a deep sleep.
The next thing I knew, I was jolting awake, clutching the duvet to my body like a shield. Sleep-befuddled and shocked, I saw that the light had been turned on, the door was open, and Michael appeared to be upside down in the doorway. He was bent double, with his head next to his feet, looking under the bed — the same bed that contained his freaked-out houseguest.
In those first few seconds, I could think of no non-alarming reason for Michael to have opened the door to the room where I was sleeping, turned on the light, and bent himself in half. I waited for him to say sorry for disturbing me — for coming into the room where I was sleeping and actually turning the light on. He didn’t apologize. Nor did he seem to notice my shocked gasp and duvet clutching. “I thought Hobart might be in here with you,” he said. “I can’t find him.”
He came closer, knelt down, and stuck his head right under the bed. When he emerged, he said with a sigh, “No, he’s not under there.” He then opened, one by one, every cupboard door and drawer in the room.
As I was thinking this, I heard Linda call out, “Found him, Michael! He’s in here, on the sofa.” “Here” turned out to be Michael’s study.
As I heard these words, I had the strangest feeling: as if something had opened up in my mind, or broken in, and rearranged all my thoughts. “This is a significant moment,” I said to myself silently, even though I hadn’t yet fully worked out why.
A significant moment…
The next day, as I drove home, I thought about Michael being upside down in the doorway, and I’ve thought about it many times since. It’s a grudge I hold that involves Michael, but I wouldn’t say I hold it against him, because it didn’t stop me from liking him, and it didn’t end our friendship. (We should hold grudges about people, not against them. A grudge shouldn’t have any “against” in it.)
With this incident — which I still think of as Michael Upside Down in the Doorway (I give all my grudges titles because it helps with cataloging and classification) — I was aware while it was happening that here was a grudge forming in real time, one that would stay with me forever. Also, I noticed that once I’d recovered from my initial shock at being woken so unexpectedly, I was neither angry nor upset. Instead, I was curious — certain that an important event had occurred and eager to know what it meant.
It was a strange feeling and a turning point. Previously, I had formed all my grudges spontaneously and unintentionally. This was the first one that I consciously resolved to create, because I sensed, in the moment, that some kind of inner exclamation mark or mental bookmark was required — in other words, a grudge, according to my definition of the word (though that wasn’t how I put it to myself at the time, and it was only later that I fully came to understand what my definition was). On the night in question, all I knew was that this was a story I needed first to polish so that it was in its best possible form, and then to remember, and then to tell. The strangest thing of all was that I knew the main person to whom I needed to tell this story was myself.
Mindful Grudge Creation
That was 13 years ago. Since then, I’ve gotten into the habit of doing this—let’s call it “mindful grudge creation”—and it’s rare that I don’t recognize a grudge-sparking incident as it’s happening, but Michael Upside Down in the Doorway was my first. I didn’t understand then why I needed to get the story right (and by “right,” I mean as clear and accurate as possible) or that it was a newly formed grudge. If you’d asked me then whether I held grudges, I probably wouldn’t have admitted it, because I hadn’t yet realized that grudges are really, really good for you.
Let’s go back to Michael for a moment. When I thought about the Upside Down in the Doorway incident, several important features stood out:
Michael hadn’t looked for Hobart in the rest of the house before interrupting my sleep. Michael’s study, where Linda found Hobart, was next to the room I was in, and no one was sleeping in it. Why hadn’t Michael checked there first? Why hadn’t he checked the whole house before walking in on me? Why didn’t my need for sleep and my privacy
matter at least that much to him? Waking me wasn’t the only thing he risked doing by coming into the guest room unannounced. He also risked scaring me (which he did) and embarrassing me. For all he knew, I might have been sleeping in the nude. He didn’t, at any point, apologize. He simply hadn’t thought about my needs or feelings. In his
eyes, if I wasn’t bleeding from the eyeballs or dangling out of a 15th-floor window, I was obviously fine—and that left him free to think only about his own needs.
I knew that Michael wasn’t going to worry even for a second about having been a bad host, or that I might not be keen to stay chez him in the future. I also knew that he would have jumped in front of a bullet to protect me if he perceived me to be in true danger. In many ways, he is a noble and self-sacrificing person. If I had been subject to a form of harm that he recognized as harm, he would have put my welfare before his own, I had no doubt. The trouble was that Michael had a worrying tendency to define other people as being perfectly all right and not suffering any sort of adverse effects whenever it suited him to do so.
I realized that he was someone who would always be willing to cause me minor inconvenience, fleeting annoyance, mild alarm, and low-key unhappiness if he needed to do so in order to alleviate his own anxiety or to get something he very much wanted, without stopping to question whether it was correct or fair. That feeling of significance I had in the middle of the night was my subconscious saying, “It’s time you realized how this man will always behave.”
We all hold grudges
Secretly, we all hold grudges, but most of us probably think we shouldn’t, and many of us deny that we do. To bear a grudge is too negative, right? Instead, we should forgive and move on. Of course, it’s essential to think positively if you want to live a happy life, but even more crucial is how you get to that positive. Denying your negative emotions and experiences in the hope that they will disappear from memory and leave you feeling and thinking exactly as you did before they happened will lead only to more pain, conflict, and stress in the long term.
So, what should you do instead? You should hold a grudge, and then forgive and move on, while still holding your grudge. Holding grudges doesn’t have to fill us with hate or make us bitter and miserable. If you approach the practice of grudge-holding in an enlightened way, you’ll find it does the opposite: It makes you more forgiving. Your grudges can help you to honour your personal emotional landmarks, and you can distill vital life lessons from them — about your value system, hopes, needs, and priorities — that will act as a series of stepping-stones, pointing you in the right direction for the best possible future.
Many of us have been trained from a young age to think holding grudges is a petty, compassionless, and horrible thing to do. This means that as we go through life and every so often find ourselves on the receiving end of treatment that’s somewhere on the shoddy-to-heinous spectrum, we are ill-equipped to deal with it in the best and wisest way.
That was certainly the case for me, for many years — and often in circumstances that caused much more harm than being woken up in the middle of the night. I felt guilty about the grudges I held, but I couldn’t quite let go of them.
Then, one day, around three months before Michael Upside Down in the Doorway, I had a breakthrough: It wasn’t that I couldn’t give up my grudges. It was that I didn’t want to — because they were wondrous things.
I realized that my grudges were the very route to positivity and well-being that I was after! They weren’t harming me or anyone else. I had no negative feelings associated with them at all; they were simply a collection of stories that were important to me and that I wanted to keep. They would help protect me from future harm, and they would help me process the harm that I did experience in a more healthy way.
The Upside Down in the Doorway night wasn’t the last night I spent under the same roof as Michael. There were several occasions afterward when avoiding it would have been too difficult, but I never again willingly and freely chose it, and I felt protected and less likely to suffer once I had my grudge fixed securely in place: a story that gave me official permission to link it to other Michael stories and say to myself, “Remember: Michael is this sort of person, likely to behave in this way.”
I learned from Michael Upside Down in the Doorway that while continuing to pursue the friendship and be nice to him, and while not resenting him or feeling anger toward him, I should be aware and on my guard in his presence and not let him do me any harm, according to my definition of harm, which I gave myself permission to believe was every bit as important as his. I value and love this grudge, as I do all the grudges I deem worthy of holding. I’m grateful for my grudges because they have taught me, more than anything else in my life, the way I do and don’t want to live.