Dear Older Self,
Beware of your resentments. They are like poisonous weeds that are dangerous to your health and well being.
Remember the suffering created by the resentments of an elderly woman you knew? She resented her husband’s loss of cognitive and motor skills. She often became verbally abusive of him. She would shame him for his failing memory and decreased abilities adding greatly to his distress and to the distress of all who loved him.
Remember the destruction that resentments created in an elderly family member who could not forgive one of her adult sons for his inability to attend his father’s funeral? In her mind no excuse was good enough and no response was possible other than resentment. She was so trapped by her resentments that she took her son out of the will—wounding him not just financially but emotionally and spiritually as well.
You can see from these two stories that resentments often grow either out of an expectation that people should behave in ways that make us feel good or out of an expectation that we should be able to control people and circumstances. When our expectations are not meant, we can find ourselves angry and resentful.
The fourth step of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous offers a way to weed out resentments. It suggests taking inventory of our resentments. This is essential work for people recovering from addictions or codependency. It is also a spiritual practice that can be helpful to all of us.
The point of a resentment inventory is to prevent your resentments from destroying your peace of mind or controlling your current choices. Resentments are not the only option available to you.
There is a better way forward. It will require honesty and humility—which means it will not be easy. But there is nothing easy about hanging on to your resentments. Hanging on to resentments leads to greater suffering for yourself and others. By paying attention to your resentments, by telling the truth about them, you will be taking the next step on a path that leads to a life with greater honesty and integrity.
You can begin by inviting God to reveal your resentments. As they begin to come to you, write them down. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous provides a helpful structure for this process. It suggests taking a piece of paper and making four columns on the page. In the first column list who or what you are resentful toward. In the second column briefly describe why you are resentful. And in the third column describe how you were harmed by the behavior that caused this particular resentment. In these first three columns you have an opportunity to get some clarity about your anger and resentments. By writing out your resentments you get an opportunity to take full ownership of your resentments. They belong to you. They are your response—not just something that happened to you.
This process of taking full ownership of your resentments leads directly to the final column in a resentment inventory. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous makes this suggestion about the fourth column of a resentment inventory: “Putting out of our minds the wrongs others had done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking and frightened? …When we saw our faults we listed them. We placed them before us in black and white.”
This decision to focus on these questions makes many things possible. It might help you look at how you are setting yourself up for resentments. It might help you look at your expectations and judgements of other people. And it might help you to extend more grace to others.
For example, if you are angry and resentful toward someone who you wish would visit you more frequently, you might have an entry in your resentment inventory that looks like this:
column 1: My middle aged son column 2: He doesn’t visit me as often as I would like. column 3: I feel unwanted, unloved and unneeded. column 4: I am being self-serving in only thinking about my needs and not about his. I am being dishonest by forgetting how difficult it was for me to visit my parents when I was his age. I am being afraid in thinking that I will end up alone with no one to visit me.
Being clear about the ways in which you have been selfish, self-serving, dishonest and afraid can radically change your perspective. And it can dramatically increase your compassion for the person you have been resenting. It can also show you where you might need to change your thinking or where you might need to change your behaviors. This can help free you of your resentment and it can free the other person from feeling like they will never be able to do enough for you.
When you have completed your inventory, offer each resentment to God. And then read your inventory to a safe person. Ask them simply to listen respectfully to what you have written.
Writing a resentment inventory can help you take full ownership of your feelings. It can help you get ready to clean up your side of the street. It can help you release other people to God’s loving care. It can help you take another step toward a life characterized by serenity rather than by anxiety. And it can help you build more respectful relationships with the people you love.
Let go of your resentments. Take inventory.
This meditation is taken from Notes to Our Older Selves: Suggestions for Aging With Grace by Juanita Ryan and Mary Rae. You can get a copy at Amazon.com