constellations #77: my grudges hold me
Recently I got this TikTok video in my feed about the supposed need, around my age, to have in your pocket at all times a fascinating all-purpose standout dinner party question. And then after that first one, I got a lot of other videos riffing on that idea. The poster of the original video says this is her go-to question: Imagine you died tomorrow and, upon arrival in heaven,your higher power of choice lets you revisit Earth for five minutes. You can’t see family or friends, but you can be anywhere on the planet. Where do you go and why?
Other questions, sourced from the comments of that video: What was the last thing that cost you nothing but made you happy? (This is cute.) Who is a celebrity you hate for virtually no reason? (I would love to hear my friends’ answers to this.) Which musicians belong on your personal musical Mt. Rushmore? (This could lead to some really fun conversations, of course, although to be honest there are so many people whose answers to this I would not want to hear — like, okay, yes we all love The Beatles, tell me something new!)
Here’s another one from a 2019 New York Times newsletter by Tim Herrera: What is your oldest or most cherished grudge? When that question is asked in a group, he says, “without fail, every person unloads with shockingly specific, intimate detail about their grudge. Career slights (intentional or not), offhand-yet-cutting remarks, bitter friendship dissolutions; nothing is too small or petty when it comes to grudges.”
I don’t love to admit to being a champion-grade grudge-holder, but indeed, I am, and long have been. Once, in college, I was complaining to a dear friend about a petty slight committed against me by a friend-of-a-friend, linking it to another petty slight he had committed against me years before. At the end of the story, my friend looked me in the eyes and said, Wow, you really hold onto things, don’t you? She did not mean it in pity or as a compliment, but it did make me feel closer to her; I felt understood. (We aren’t friends anymore, for the record, though I’m closer now with the committer of the original petty slights; I’ve forgiven those actions, though I haven’t forgotten.)
From Bad History Month: “I don't hold my grudges / my grudges hold me / with the comfort of a mother's arms / in the certainty of self-righteous / oppositional identity.”
Grudges are a meaning-making tool, I guess: I was wronged, and as a result, I have this thing to hold. As long as I hold it, my pain has meaning, is manifest. If I drop the grudge, my pain is ambient, shapeless, unrecognizable to myself or others.
“A lively grudge can both console and validate,” says an article in praise of grudges, “it can create space for you to acknowledge that something bad happened to you, and that it matters.” It matters! And grudges can be teachers. Maybe you hold a grudge because you don’t like how someone acted towards you; maybe you won’t act like them in the future. Maybe you hold a grudge because you actually just wish you had had the wherewithal to act differently in some past situation; maybe you can change your behavior next time.
(One day on the way to school when I was a kid, my friend and carpool-mate announced that she had seen the supernatural horror movie The Grudge the night before. How was it? I asked. What’s it about? She then gave me — and my sisters, who were also in the car, and my mom, who was driving — a scene-by-scene synopsis of the entire ninety-minute film, which took up the entire half-hour drive to school. I don’t remember any of the details now, so I just read the plot on Wikipedia, which notes that critics found it “illogical and barely scary” — likely the exact words my friend used in the car that day in 2004. She didn’t like the movie at all, and her synopsis didn’t make me want to go out and see it, but we were all captivated for the length of the drive by her retelling.)
Another good resource for grudges: writer Scaachi Koul’s newsletter called “A List Of People I Am Mad At,” which is exactly what it sounds like.
Herrera’s article about grudges quotes a psychologist who runs the Stanford Forgiveness Project: “Whenever you can’t grieve and assimilate what has happened, you hold it in a certain way,” the psychologist says. “If it’s bitterness, you hold it with anger. If it’s hopeless, you hold it with despair. But both of those are psycho-physiological responses to an inability to cope, and they both do mental and physical damage.” Real physical damage, he says: Hopelessness hampers immune response; anger dysregulates the nervous system. (Anger, apparently, is “the most harmful emotion for the cardiovascular system.” Sorry to my heart.)
The psychologist says that getting over grudges — which we ought to do, for our health! — takes four steps: calm down; shift the story you tell yourself about the begrudged incident “from that of a victim to a more heroic story”; pay attention to the good things in your life; and, simultaneously, remind yourself of one simple truth: sometimes, things just don’t go our way.
That third step is so curious to me. I have trouble locating the heroism in the story of this or that insult I suffered. For one thing, most of the grudges I hold are pretty minor; it feels like a stretch to attach heroics to my mental narrative about someone’s snarky tone or insensitive comments. I’m not exactly heroic for surviving the quiet indignity of someone saying “it’s nice to meet you” after we’ve met, like, ten times already.
Am I supposed to find the heroism in my forgiveness? Doesn’t that seem a little self-serving? Wise people are always saying forgiveness is for you, not for the other person, and I suppose that’s true; it’s all self-serving in the end. But I didn’t go to Catholic school for years to not feel at least a little guilty about the idea of choosing the high road simply in service of my own well-being.
I do have some grudges that were filed away in the back of my mind, left alone, only to fade by themselves over time. The product of wisdom, maybe, or perhaps some kind of quietly gestating generosity — but truly, I think, just the product of distance; something annoying that happened in 2015 or 2009 or 2004 might as well have been a lifetime ago, something that happened to someone else — and the perpetrator is more than likely someone else now, too. This has been one of the sweetest gifts, for me, of getting older.
Forgiveness, the psychologist argues, is a learnable skill — one that just takes some practice. Believe me, I am not here to tell you to let all your good grudges go! But it’s nice to know you could if you wanted to. (And here’s hoping you’ll forgive me for whatever weird thing I did in the distant past, too.)
Here are some other things I have been consuming lately: birdfeeder by A Country Western; return by Blue Smiley; the new boygenius songs (I wrote about one of them); Good Girl by Anna Fitzpatrick; The Right To Sex by Amia Srinivasan; All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews; Fleishman Is In Trouble (the TV adaptation); five really marvelous and restorative days with beloved friends in Austin, which included an array of fantastic tacos and a swim at Barton Springs and the watching of both National Treasure movies and also Mulholland Dr.; a rewatch (first time in years) of the only music video my boyfriend’s high school prog-rock band made, in which I starred; this article about the history of literary criticism; this article about stone skipping that I kept meaning to read since it was published last fall; the blooming of my beloved Thanksgiving cactus
Thanks for reading. If you feel so inclined, please reply to this email or leave a comment with your cherished grudges! I am dying to hear about them. But also, in that same hope, may we all practice our learnable skills this month. See you next twenty-fourth.
P.S.: When I sent myself a test of this newsletter last night, it included a message about “pledging a future subscription” in order to “tell constellations that their writing is valuable.” Don’t be fooled, you don’t need to do that! I have no plans to ever charge money for a subscription to this newsletter. If, however, you want to tell me that constellations is valuable to you, you are welcome to do that with words :)
Lots of assumptions about the overall morality of your fellow partygoers being made here…
Lest I come off sanctimonious: Not all of my grudges have simply faded away, to be clear! I still harbor plenty, and plenty unreasonably.