Whatever type of connection it may be, this one could certainly end it – this is how the root of bitterness destroys relationships.
We live in uncertain times. Life continues to change. Interactions continue to be different. Expectations and reality stay at odds from each other. We’ve got to be physically distant whilst trying to maintain social connection. It’s one of those times where everything in your life is under a microscope from the pressure of the current day – your goals, your dreams, your contentment, your peace, your aspirations, and yes, your relationships.
When things go wrong in life, it can really put pressure on what’s already not so great in life.
And we are drowning in so much negative news at the moment. Constant accusations, fear mongering, people suffering on all fronts. In all that’s going on it can be hard not to become a cynical person. Surrounded by so much negativity, we have a tendency to absorb our surroundings if we’re not careful. I know this is something I’ve had to watch out for in my life and especially with the current pressure around and about me.
And there’s another sensation that can develop or be exacerbated by all that’s going on – bitterness. Instead of remaining joyful and open and welcoming, we can become twisted and angry and bitter towards life and towards each other.
Sometimes it feels like it’s well deserved and that you’re completely justified in feeling that way. Often times, we can make a lot of really strong arguments for why we should maintain a spirit of annoyance towards others, towards the world, towards the heavens. Life can be awful, and people even moreso.
And yet the thing that actually suffers from becoming and staying bitter are our connections to the people around us. Here’s how the root of bitterness destroys relationships.
The stories we tell
There are so many famous stories of people who were wronged by the system, or by some corporation, or by some government legislation. For every Ned Kelly antagonised by a corrupt police system, there is a woman jilted that hell hath no fury like with that devil indeed wearing prada, and the Scrooges of the world remaining angry at everyone and anyone who crosses their path incorrectly.
I guess I’ve noticed the theme of bitterness in a few of the stories I’ve been going through lately. I was playing a game called Ori and the Will of the Wisps about a creature named Shriek who is wronged by her upbringing and the ones she sought acceptance from at the youngest of ages. A creature named Ori seeks to restore the light and warmth of the forest, and the light reminds Shriek of how much she hates what she doesn’t have. In a replay of the game Final Fantasy 13 I see a young boy named Hope who becomes furious at a young man named Snow who was trying to help him because his mother Nora also tried to protect him and died trying. His hatred for Snow remains sustained for a long period of time, never able to even look at him straight in the face without it coming up and consuming him.
For both of these characters, the target of their anger embodies their deepest pain.
I see it in movies like Marriage Story where two people hold on to anger towards each other about the dreams they each have that the other doesn’t seem to care about, and becomes a sustained theme for years of their lives until they can’t take it any more. Or how about even a kiddie movie like Ralph Breaks the Internet where two friends start to hate each other because they want different things and one of them feels like they’re being abandoned or forgotten because their lives are changing. Or even in Shakespeare’s telling of Julius Caesar, where Brutus grows and grows in his resentment towards the man he calls friend until he puts him to death.
This profound line from the Ori game was what got me thinking on this topic and really embodies exactly how bitterness destroys relationships:
Blinded by her past, [she] rejected the warmth she once sought.
The ones who wronged you
I find it’s usually one or a few people in your life that can be the most profoundly damaging. And when you talk to someone who is bitter, or even if you’ve started to notice it within yourself, there’s usually a name that comes to their mind or yours. Or a few people. Or a place. Even now by me describing such a person or people, you may already have images flooding your mind of the ones who seemingly hold your peace and joy as their captive, or those whom you have also watched bitterness destroy.
For me when I think of how the root of bitterness destroys relationships, I think of a number of different cases I’ve seen in life. I’ve seen a significant number of people grow old angry at the world and never resolving the anger, leaving them a lonely existence at the end of their lives. I think of marriages that have ended because of a growing resentment of the other that eventually blew up so large it was all they could both see. I think of people who no longer have any active or real friends because they treat everyone like the ones that hurt them in the past, and now they really do have no one left.
And more scarily, I think of times when I am tempted to adopt the same attitude. Where I see in my heart the opportunity for anger to continue to develop and grow, for frustration to overtake friendship, for something that seems minor to become the most major thing in my heart and mind.
It’s amazing when I even think of how the smallest thing in a marriage, in a friendship, in a whatever, can become the biggest deal to us.
Even more amazing than that is how long we are willing to hold on to something for the sake of… what is it exactly?
Why we hold on
In all the different and great authors I read on the field of relationships and marriages – Henry Cloud, Gary Chapman, John and Helen Burns, TD Jakes, Nicky and Sila Lee, and so on – John Gottman of the Gottman Institute sums up a phenomenon about love and relationships no one can avoid. True love is about small things often. Every time you have an opportunity to connect with someone you care about to any degree, both of you are making bids for the other’s affection, the other’s notice, the other’s love. And in these relational bids, we either receive closeness or rejection. They either notice us, or they don’t. In the words of Birdsong by Kina Grannis – “do you see me?”.
The truth is that the big things are just lots of small things put together. That old expression the straw that broke the camel’s back holds true to how we connect with other people.
The issue is how much straw we continue to carry, how many negative emotions we continue to harbour, how many deficits in the other person we note in the diary of our hearts that we hold on to.
Because they embody what we feel we don’t have.
It’s the same reason it can be so hard to let someone go and move on after a break up. Or a friend after they change seasons. Or why we struggle to forgive or feel loved.
Because letting them go, or letting the issue go, feels like you’re letting go of what you are owed. What you are entitled to.
What you never got.
The other big reason is that we feel like there has been no sense of justice. We aren’t validated, we aren’t heard, and it didn’t matter.
Grows to corrupt many
And like the damaged owl named Shriek, we remain blinded by our past and reject the warmth we once sought.
One of the things that constantly breaks my heart is seeing absolutely amazing single men and single women who are unable, unwilling, unwhatever to be able to open their heart to a new relationship. They have their past screaming so loudly in their ears that they can’t hear the voice of love that is trying to speak to their heart once again. So many breakups with stupid reasons simply because bitterness had become more intimate than any person could become.
Or when a person is unable or unwilling to make new friends, or even see their current ones. Slowly, month on month, year on year, they disappear from the lives of the people they once held dear fellowship with, the ones who knew where they were and how they were doing, making all the excuses and lying to their friends, and they’re just alone.
And one of the saddest things about the times we live in is that people are really just left with whoever they haven’t treated with contempt as a result of their bitterness.
I think of the story of Ruth. It’s a story of a young Moabite woman who loses her father, her husband and her brother in law in death. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, takes it to heart more than anyone else. When she returns to her hometown, everyone is so happy to see her. Naomi means joy, and she was evidently known to be someone who brought her joy with her.
Instead, she shuts everyone down and tells them not to call her Naomi – not to refer to the joy she once had – but to call her Mara, which means bitter, because the Almighty had dealt bitterly with her.
I think that’s so sad that the ones who she could have been restored to connection with and celebrated her were shut down and corrected with such despair.
And isn’t that exactly how it happens in our own lives? Despair, heartbreak, and pain become your closest friends often at the expense of all your current and future relationships. It never just stays in one relationship – the root of bitterness does indeed grow to corrupt many.
How can you have joy when all you can feel is sorrow?
The role of forgiveness
This is where people get trapped. We continue to choose bitterness and to be content as bitterness destroys relationships all around us until we make the decision to set our heart free… and to set the other person free.
A terrifyingly true statement I’ve seen play out time and time again came from one of my pastors who used to say that you are destined to repeat what you cannot forgive. The more we hang on to things, we more we become the same monster we used to fear.
The person who hurt you… how much does your own life look like what you hate about them today?
People are going to let us down. Continually. Consistently. Sometimes they’ll know it, sometimes they won’t. Sometimes you recover from it quickly, sometimes it takes a lot of work.
Imagine if someone breaks a plate in your house and says sorry. The apology doesn’t repair the plate.
Unfortunately what many of us do, and what bitterness really does, is we take photos of the broken plate. We mediate on the broken plate. We make it our identity. We show everyone we know what happened. Any time a new plate comes along, we go right back to our broken one and point at it like a crying child and tell our connections and our own heart, “No, look!!”.
Forgiveness is actually acceptance of what happened. Not denial. Not erasing that it happened. Just no longer holding it against the one who broke the plate. It sets the prisoner in your mind free. And as it turns out, the prisoner was actually yourself.
Forgiveness is not necessitating that the plate be fixed – it is the painful and scary reality that the plate may never be the same way again.
It is different to reconciliation. Reconciliation means the person who broke the plate seeks to restore what was broken. And if you’re dealing with someone who is habitually abusive or unsafe, then you might not want to go down that road.
But forgiveness is a road we always need to go down. Why?
Because our heart needs to be free. As long as you hold on, you carry the person around with you everywhere you go.
Another reason – it’s very hard to do other relationships well without bitterness spilling out in one way or another. In the words of an old Relient K song, “I tried to hold your hand but you’d rather hold your grudge”. There’s no room for the past and the future in the same heart.
Make the decision to let it go. The event, the person, the sensation. Make the decision to say goodbye to the apology you’ll never receive, the way you thought it should happen, or even the way it’s “supposed” to be. Too many people wait forever for something that may unfortunately never change. And if life refuses to change, the only thing within our power to do is change ourselves.
The role of hope
Bitterness stems from the belief that the past is better than the future. That what you used to have will never be replaced. That the way that relationship was in the past is better than it could ever be again. Anger, injustice, and frustration mount as you begin to believe that you’re just always going to miss out on what you really want.
For that reason, forgiveness is impossible without hope.
I was reading again the other week the story of the restoration of the Temple of Jerusalem during the time of Ezra the priest. They were rebuilding what had been broken. After a long time, they finally restored the foundation of the building, and the same sight that caused the young men to rejoice for what the future could hold… caused the old men to cry for what had been lost. The sound was so loud that it couldn’t be determined who was laughing and who was crying.
Any restoration attempt in our lives is the same. And we need to decide where we want to live – in the present and the future that we still have, or in the past we no longer have control over.
There is always hope. There is more out there for you. Even if your past relationships are dead, there are many more great people out there. You are loved more than you could ever measure in a thousand lifetimes. As one song puts it so well, we are cherished beyond all words.
Something that TD Jakes said when I was younger set my heart free from a lot of weight I had been carrying in this way, and I will share it with you because it’s true – your destiny is not tied to what you lost.
The choice is up to all of us. And it may take a lot of work, but the alternative is that the root of bitterness grows to corrupt many, and bitterness destroys relationships all around us. We can continue to lose friends, break up with partners, and stay awake late at night… or we can forgive and choose hope.
How about you? Have you had to face the root of bitterness before? Do you agree that bitterness destroys relationships?