National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 16, 2004

Giving up the guilt-resentment-rage cycle


Several months ago, my husband and I rented the movie “The Spanish Prisoner.” It’s a complex screenplay by David Mamet, full of his signature dialogue -- stark and pithy. One brief conversation was so striking that we stopped the movie and rewound it several times just to write it down. The scene involves two men, one advising the other who thinks his company is cheating him. The adviser says,

“I think you’ll find if what you’ve done is as valuable as you say it is -- if they are indebted to you morally, but not legally -- my experience is they will give you nothing. [Pause] And they will begin to act cruelly toward you.”

“Why?” asks the other.

“To suppress their guilt.”

Willard Gaylin, in his remarkable little book Feelings, suggests that difficult feelings (guilt, anger, envy and so on) are signals: encoded messages that say, “Something is wrong! Figure it out! Fast!” We want -- we need -- to resolve these feelings. The resolution of guilt is forgiveness. (Or we can decide that what we did isn’t really our idea of wrong, but that of our parents or the church or society. But that’s another story.)

When we do something we believe to be wrong and we don’t seek forgiveness, the guilt festers. Left unresolved, guilt may morph into shame, a much more debilitating state. When we feel guilty, it’s about something we’ve done -- it’s still external -- but when we feel shame, we are ashamed of ourselves. Shame is a kind of death.

If we want to avoid shame but lack the insight or humility or courage to seek forgiveness, what do we do with our guilt? Gaylin explains that unresolved guilt is so uncomfortable that it leads to resentment of the very person we’ve wronged, which leads to rage.

Mamet’s screenplay is about the workplace and I suspect most laid-off employees have experienced something like this. Former bosses and colleagues become distant and cold. Bosses feel guilty about firing someone, even if it was best for the business. Colleagues feel guilty that they are keeping their jobs. And, very often, there is some mitigating behavior that might have contributed to the misfortune of the one who was fired: failure to follow due process or a bit of ill-placed office gossip.

In any case, when people treat you cruelly and you can’t figure out what you did to them, it might be enlightening to take a look at what they did to you.

As I began this writing, I was thinking about close-to-home hurts, but I wonder if this cycle of guilt-resentment-rage influences international affairs. Do soldiers treat prisoners cruelly (or nations declare war) because they feel guilty about what they themselves have become?

Maybe it’s related -- the difficulty we have forgiving those who have hurt us personally and the forging of international peace. Maybe we shouldn’t pray for peace in Iraq if we can’t forgive each other in our families, religious communities, workplaces and parishes.

How do we break the cycle and make peace?

I suppose the first thing would be to stop clinging self-righteously to that high road. We are all tempted to care about our well-being more than the truth. If we speak up for an unjustly terminated colleague, we might lose our job. And if we were the one who lost our job or were otherwise victimized … well, it hurts. No doubt about that.

But victims have to be careful not to stay center stage too long, whether one is the media’s sympathetic victim of the moment or on the stage of our own minds, where we are always the starring heroic martyr. Several problems arise with remaining center stage too long, not the least of which is bad drama. The audience gets bored and goes home.

Another problem is that there are other victims waiting in the wings who are also deserving of our attention, our time, our compassion. They need to tell their stories, too. And as the only way we Americans say we’re sorry is to give away buckets of money, I wonder how a victim avoids victimizing someone else. Too often the money doesn’t come from the victimizer -- it comes from the taxpayers, the parishioners, the folks. Just as there is a victim inside every terrorist, there is also a terrorist inside every victim -- God didn’t make us all that different from each other -- and the prayer of every victim should be, “Please God, help me not to do that.”

Most of the lessons of losing cannot be learned on stage -- we’re too busy playing our one-dimensional role of Good Guy -- but privately in our little closets where we weep alone, or if we’re lucky, with a good friend or two. If we stay in that closet long enough and cry hard enough, we’ll eventually find that loss turning into something that will work for us. And then we can rewrite the ending of our play. That is the great task of our life: to rewrite the ending until we all get into heaven together -- terrorist and victim; abuser and abused; enemy and friend.

Paige Byrne Shortal writes from her home in rural Missouri.

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 2004

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