by Constance Garcia-Barrio
In April I threw open the windows of my house and took a swipe at winter’s dirt. As I carried cleaning rags and a bucket of soapy water from room to room, I decided that year’s spring cleaning should include more than the walls and floors. I wanted to rid myself of a certain smudge on my spirit: I hold on to grudges as if they were money.
I told a friend about two emails I received from someone I hadn’t heard from in six years. This person had done me grievous hurts in the past.
“What did his email say?” my friend asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I deleted his messages unread.”
“He might have been apologizing.”
My friend gave me a long look, and then told me the story of the young monk, the older one and the haughty woman. When the woman asked for help to cross a creek, the older monk carried her to the other side on his back. The woman walked off without a word. Hours later, the young monk asked the older one why the woman’s ingratitude didn’t anger him. The older monk said, “Why are you still carrying her? I put her down a long time ago.”
The story gave me food for thought, as did a course I’m taking at the Philadelphia Shambhala Meditation Center. Called “A year to live,” the course invites participants to lead our lives as if this year — or day, or hour — was to be our last. With whom and in what state of mind would we want to meet death?
Did I want to drag this grudge into eternity?
An acquaintance summed up the effect of grudges in starker terms: “It’s like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die,” she said.
Yet, I stayed on this grudge like a setting hen, keeping it nice and warm. A good friend, local psychotherapist Susan K. Martel, Ed.M., explained why. “Our instinct is to protect ourselves, so holding a grudge is like using a shield against the hurt caused by the person or situation,” she said. “The problem is that the grudge takes up space within us that we could use for something healthier and more productive.”
Susan also pointed out that revisiting hurtful words and incidents could dig me in deeper. “A grudge can become self-reinforcing, almost a conditioned response,” she said. “That leaves little room to be thoughtful.”
Simmering resentment can grip not just the psyche but the body, Susan said. “For example, some people feel a tightening in the chest or gut when they think of the other person,” she said. “The holding becomes almost second nature.”
Maybe forgiving would be the best revenge, but how could I start?
The first step, though simple, challenged me. Susan suggested that I sit, breathe deeply, and notice what parts of my body I tightened when the person came to mind. “Rather than just holding the grudge, explore it,” she said. “If you can, relax around it. Consider the stress involved in holding a grudge. Have compassion for yourself.”
Susan explained that softening toward the grudge wouldn’t mean forgetting what happened, condoning it or turning the other cheek. “Softening will let you take a healthier stance,” she said.
I took Susan’s words to heart, but veteran grudger that I am, I needed a bit more to let go. Prayer helped, but I also searched for a ritual that would give gently lead me forward.
Two weeks ago, I went to the ocean. I fed the seagulls bread to allow myself time to slow down, to breathe in the salt scent and watch the crashing waves that, as Ross McDonald wrote, rolled in “like measured installments of eternity.” I removed my shoes and walked to where the water just covered my feet. I made an offering and asked for release from grudges in general, especially this one that had sunk in its talons. I returned home lighter, yet I knew that this short visit to the sea amounted to a pre-soak cycle. I had to do more.
I returned to the ocean the following week and repeated what I’d done the earlier time, except this time I sat on the beach and waited, my eyes closed much of the time, asking for healing. When I left a good hour later, the cleansing felt more complete.
If I were to receive an email from this person today, I would at least read it. I would let my intuition lead me about whether to respond, and if so, how.
At least I’ve made a start in this other spring cleaning. I can feel something lighter rising in me from the detritus of seasons past.
Constance Garcia-Barrio, a freelance journalist and Mt. Airy resident, teaches at Community College of Philadelphia. She received an award for a magazine feature story from the National Association of Black Journalists. Her articles have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Christian Science Monitor and several literary magazines in addition to the Local. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.