On Grudges

I really do want to be a better person, and I really do think that if we all make an effort in that direction, the world will be a better place.

Something came to me quite suddenly yesterday, inspired by nothing. I was walking through the parking lot, and my mind just happened to wander back to all these things I've been trying to process lately about self-improvement.

First, there was the idea of Situationist psychological analysis, and Zimbardo's recommendation that we exhaust all situational explanations for human behavior before resorting to dispositional analysis. This should be done at the level of social psychology, i.e. the level of a social group, in the Zimbardo tradition; how do we explain why groups of people do things that groups of people do? But in my mind, there is a more individual, more morally oriented way of applying this same lesson: If I can imagine a situation in which I myself would do the same thing that another person did, how can I remain angry at them?

Try it for yourself the next time you're in heavy traffic. It's inevitable that someone will do something that bothers you. They might cut you off, they might fail to signal a turn, they might merge incorrectly, they might tailgate you, they might speed past you dangerously... or any of dozens of other things that might bother you. Before you get upset (or quickly thereafter if, like me, you're still honing your ability to default to the proper moral reactions), try to imagine a situation in which you might plausibly make the same mistake. Hey, I don't know, maybe you're a perfect driver and you'd never make any driving mistakes ever. Chances are, though, you'll be able to imagine just such a plausible scenario. My assertion is that what you'll discover is that doing this will make you much less upset about the other motorist.

I've been surprised and impressed by just how profoundly this practice has diffused my temper in frustrating situations. It's common knowledge that "before you judge someone else, put yourself in their shoes," which is of course excellent moral advice that your mother always taught you. But the key point here is that it is also therapeutic for you.

Maybe I'm slow on the uptake here, but this has been a real revelation for me.

So there was that, and then second, there was my coming to a fuller comprehension of what The Last Psychiatrist was writing about for all those years. He wrote a lot about defense mechanisms and narcissism, about the influence of media on the human psyche and about the tendency we all have to be self-absorbed these days. He wrote so many good, important, and useful things, lessons that will change your life for the better if you fully absorb them.

So, as I was saying, suddenly it hit me: To hold a grudge is a thoroughly selfish act, almost a narcissistic one.

It goes something like this: If you're holding a grudge against Jane, a lot of your anger comes from the significance to your life that you attach to the offense committed by Jane. But there is no guarantee that Jane ever gave that much significance to her offense. For her, it might have been a throw-away. That you attach so much significance to the act suggests an unhealthy preoccupation with the significance of your own thoughts, and your belief that others ought to share your esteem for those thoughts.

Now, forgiveness doesn't mean you allow anyone to do anything to you at any time. It just means that you let go of your anger, reduce the level of self-absorption involved in your thought process, and quietly move on with your life. It might be productive, in some cases, to tell Jane that you forgive her for her offense and give her a chance to forgive you, too. But it might not be productive to bring it up at all, in which case you might come to realize that you don't need Jane's acknowledgement to forgive her. You might just need to articulate that forgiveness to yourself.

We can make the world a better place by being better people, and one way to be a better person is to stop holding grudges.