I get angry, but I hide it well. People tell me that I’m calm and even-tempered. I am, mostly. They admire that about me, they say. I realize that they only see the outside of me, though. Inside is where the anger is……or where it can be. Hidden. I’ve heard it said that people who seem like they have the world figured out are really the ones you need to worry about the most. That might describe me, only without the worry part. I’m harmless.
Sometimes my anger lingers, or intensifies, into something more complex; something uglier and less admirable. A grudge. It happens less as I get older, thankfully, but it’s taken me down some dark roads. When I’m pursuing a grudge, most people don’t know it. I conduct my work with stealth. More like the Wizard of Oz than, say, Tony Soprano; cowardly pulling strings behind a curtain that hides the shame, instead of throwing punches in public, like a man.
I listen to a band, that you’ve probably never heard of, called Rage Against the Machine. Their music is still around, but they’re no longer together. They don’t do anything softly, except at the end of a song they call “Freedom,” where the singer, Zack de la Rocha, delivers the final line like he’s sharing a secret.
“Anger is a gift,” he whispers.
When I listen to the song (which is often because my iPhone always repeats it, rather than moving on to the next one in the playlist, as it does with all the others), I think, “you’re right, Zack.” Anger has value.
I’ve always considered it a gift to me. Anger that is. That and frustration – but I’ll save that one for another day. Getting angry makes me aware, usually of a problem that I’m not solving (or that’s not solving itself) or about a relationship that’s either going to hell or otherwise not in my favor. Sometimes, I just get blindsided by something I can’t control or by someone I trusted, mistakenly, and that pisses me off. Maybe you know what that feels like.
It’s one thing to consider anger a gift. It’s another to hang onto it as it grows like cancer into a grudge. I never went searching for grudges. Having them was never a goal I’d written down or aspired toward. They just found me (or me them, depending on your perspective) and set up shop in my mind. Most of my grudges have been business-related, which I guess makes sense. I did once have a small grudge against my childhood friend, Vinny, but that was only over a girl in high school, and my grudge with him ended when she broke up with him and started dating me. His against me, on the other hand, may have begun then, understandably.
A Competitor Made Me Do It
I should have known that I had an anger/grudge problem when I spent a Saturday afternoon in 1998 writing a letter (it was more like a manifesto) to people in power that I knew, but not well, about a competitor I was pissed off about. I thought I hated this guy. The hate had been brewing inside of me like a disgusting stew of foul-smelling swine for years. My trigger just itching to be tripped.
The itch was scratched, and the trigger tripped, by a song that played on the radio (David Bowie reference, for what it’s worth) as I drove home from work that Saturday. A song by Metallica, called One. It’s one of those head-banging songs that starts slowly, like it might be a ballad, before becoming more intense, driving and violent. Sounds of war and gunfire. Yelling. Soldiers are being shot. Their lives changing in a moment. Forever. “Darkness, imprisoning me, all that I see, absolute horror, I cannot live, I cannot die. . .” You get the point. I felt like the song was written as fuel for my anger fire. An accelerant to kick my temper into overdrive, to take my competitor grudge to a new, higher-stakes level.
When I got home, I had to act before the fuel ran dry. I couldn’t help myself.
Jamy and her best friend growing up, Nora, who was visiting us from Connecticut, were downstairs, enjoying each other’s new mom-ness with the kids, Morgan and Grace.
I was locked in my office, typing away in full-blown grudge mode. An imperfect host.
My manifesto detailed everything I thought he was doing wrong, and that nobody was doing anything about. I attached pictures and documents to prove my point. I’d been on his tail for years and the “evidence” I was providing was beyond convincing. Case closed. I mailed it to every regulator and person of authority I could think of. The cc’d list was ridiculously long.
There was no way that it wouldn’t get the right person’s or people’s attention. Action would come quickly and demonstrably. Shock and awe-like. My phone would be ringing off the hook for interviews and more information. I was convinced that he would immediately find himself in scalding hot water. It would only be a matter of time before he was gone. Before I’d be happy again, satisfied that he got just what he had coming. The wait would be short. My star would rise. The grudge would pay off, big time.
Turns out that justice moves slowly. It’s been almost 20 years and I’m still waiting. No one got back to me. No one called. His water never heated up. It remained tepid, at best. At the time, I couldn’t believe nothing happened. In fact, it made me angrier, and my grudge stronger. It’s clear to me now that I probably came across as a crazy person at best and a sore loser or a whiner (yuck) at worst. Rather than being articulate, maybe even lawyerly-like (my goal), instead I’d lured myself right into his pathetic trap. To get me in the mud, to make me angry enough to be stupid. Like a messy divorce filing, I’d responded to years of his ridiculous “he said’s” with my own, even more ridiculous “he said’s.”
It’s Easier Said Than Done
I realize now that I lost control that day in my life. That Saturday, when I thought I was being righteous (seasoned with a pinch of vindictive), I was instead diving head first into the swine stew trap he’d set for me, exactly what he’d hoped I’d do. It’s embarrassing. I’m usually better than that. I usually learn the lesson before I need to take the remedial course, and avoid the need to repeat, like having to go to summer school. Not this time.
If I had to, I could make the case that grudges have given me boosts of motivation and helped me imagine an “enemy” I could compare myself against when I felt the need to go all high and mighty. Maybe that’s a legitimate justification, but it’s also a lie. I’ve been able to get rid of most of the negativity in my life but getting rid of grudges has been a challenge. It’s taken longer for me to understand their pointlessness, the brain-suck toll they’ve had on me. I’ve failed, too often, to do the math on their opportunity cost. The energy they waste, the exhaustion they cause.
As my life moves forward, I’m finding more and more that I miss a lot of stuff. Even stuff that’s obvious. But sooner or later, I read, hear or think about something that clarifies my thinking (in a way it’s never been clarified before) while also intersecting with my timing, a point where my brain and my desire are both open to accepting a change. Progress.
Making Grudge Amends
Earlier this year, this happened to me with grudges. I’m not religious, but I think I may have had an epiphany. A lightbulb moment, as if I was finally willing to hold myself accountable. To make this grudge thing about me, not someone else. I wondered. Why am I still holding these grudges? What’s the point? What’s the benefit? Truth is I didn’t have any good answers, because there were no good answers.
What should I do about it?
I went to LinkedIn, looked up my grudge and sent him a note along with a request to connect. Fat chance, I thought, at least I’d made the effort. He responded. We met. And we met one more time. I didn’t tell him I was there to bury the grudge. That was for me, not for him. It worked, though. We may never be best friends, but I’m done with that grudge. This was huge for me. I felt like a success, like I was standing a little straighter and smiling more. I felt lighter, like I was a better person.
I still listen to the same angry music, but only for its driving beat, not its message. It no longer triggers anything more than an occasional karaoke moment, in private of course. I’m done digging that hole. Now, I’m more interested in climbing ladders than digging holes. Without grudges, I feel like I can spend more time in wide open spaces, rather than tightly restricted places.
Since then, I’ve disarmed a couple of other grudges I was holding. I have a few more to go. I no longer need a common enemy, or a wrong to juxtapose against my right. I used to think that for me to win, someone else had to lose. The people I’ve had grudges with probably thought the same way, which may be why we ended up where we did.
I hope my remaining grudges are up for a change. A reconciliation of sorts. Or at least a meeting of the minds. Remaining grudges, you’ll be hearing from me.
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