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Some people show their bitterness about misfortunes and hurts that they have experienced in their lives. They show it on their faces, and they show it in much that they say. But there are others who bury the bitterness and let it eat away at them. It may come out in little ways from time to time, but for the most part, they hide it from others, and they even hide it from themselves.

Both of these groups (those who express open bitterness, and those who harbour secret bitterness) are resistant to change. But it is possible for them to change, and that is what this article is about.

Why People Tolerate Bitterness in their Friends

Most change depends heavily on the will of the person who needs to change. However, the motivation to change can start through comments made by sensitive friends, if only they would make the effort. The problem is that friends are often disinclined to take the initiative in prompting change, especially when it comes to people who just bury their bitterness. If bitterness isn't hurting their friends personally, then their friends shy away from getting involved.

People who are secretly bitter rarely become dysfunctional socially. Such people can get an education, go to work, raise a family, attend church, and perform virtually all the tasks that are necessary for an apparently full and happy life, while at the same time continuing to be bitter. If others are not unduly inconvenienced because of the bitterness, then others will probably not pressure the bitter person to deal with his or her bitterness.

Then there are people who express bitterness openly. These people will often shun friendship anyway. Those who come near are quickly chased away. Soon there is no one left to care whether the person is bitter or not. So they too fail to change.

In between these two extremes are people who express their bitterness openly at times, but who are not so obsessed with it that they cannot be distracted into other interests as well. So friends usually find that all they need to do is change the subject when bitterness comes up. They listen to the gripes sympathetically, then get on with other things, never challenging the person for having griped in the first place. So the root problem (bitterness) is still left unresolved.

Is it Really Harmless?

It's easy for the general public to think that bitterness is fairly harmless, since it rarely lands people in mental institutions. Even bitter recluses don't usually bother anyone. So we tell ourselves, "Why bother them?" But the truth is that bitterness can ruin the life of the person suffering from it. Even the most beautiful slices of life are coated with a sour, cynical icing that destroys whatever goodness may have otherwise been experienced from the occasion. Jesus Christ said, "I have come so that you may have life, and so that you may have it in all its fullness." (John 10:10) Bitterness sucks the "fullness" out of life and leaves you with a shrivelled up replica of what life could have been.

Added to the fact that friends will, more often than not, just leave bitter people to stew in their own juices, is the fact that bitter people themselves also resist change. Some, as we have already said, refuse to even admit that the bitterness exists. And when it does surface, people cling desperately to bitterness in the mistaken belief that it will "protect" them from being hurt again, or that they can use it to protect others from being hurt.

Obviously, there are positive lessons that we can learn through the school of hard knocks, and the lessons can enrich us. But bitterness does not produce the same positive fruit. Take the person who has been hurt in childhood by some action, attitude, teaching, or influence from one or both parents. I have seen people in their forties and fifties and beyond, who continue to express bitterness against their parents for something that was said or done decades ago. Can't they see that what has been done has been done? We are never going to experience childhood again ourselves, so there is no real need to protect ourselves from a repeat of the kind of hurts that can only be experienced in childhood. So what is defended on the grounds that it is "protecting" us is really just a desire to hit back at those who have hurt us.

We could resolve not to repeat errors with our own children that our parents made with us, and that could be positive and beneficial. But the bitter person will be more inclined to focus their attention around selfish hurts and selfish revenge, even when deciding how to relate to their own children. As a consequence, rather than overcoming the mistakes of their parents, by changing their own behaviour, they will be more inclined to do things that will instil the same bitterness in their own children, e.g. teaching children to hate their grandparents. In one way or another, people will do this with others who have hurt them as well. What they want is to turn others against those who have hurt them, and as a consequence, the fruit of such an attitude is always bad.

When the source of the pain is not a person, bitterness can lead to anger against God or obsessions related to situations that caused the suffering. Many crusaders (like the cult-busters) are really bitter people seeking revenge for something that they have suffered, usually in a religious group. Bitterness has a lot to do with blame. As long as we have someone to blame for our misfortunes, we can escape personal responsibility for what we do (or what we have done) with our lives. It is why so many people repeat the sins of their parents. They spend their lives focusing the blame on their parents, and assume that, by doing this, they do not have to come up with a really workable improvement on what their parents had to offer.

Some react, by going to the opposite extreme. (e.g. "My parents were too strict on me; so I'm not going to require anything of my children", or "My family suffered from poverty, so I am going to make money my number one goal in life.")

Reacting is better than just blind hatred; but it is almost certain to lead to new problems in the next generation. The reason is because you do not allow yourself to see flaws in your own approach. Bitterness does not require that your approach work. What is important is that you make a statement against the other approach... the one you are bitter about.

Blame presumes innocence on the part of the "victim". In cases of child abuse, for instance, it is easy to understand such an argument. But apart from society punishing the offender, a "victim" does not need to remain a "victim" for life. One of the most profound bits of wisdom of the Twentieth Century is the simple statement that "shit happens". In other words, hard times come to all of us. Obviously some suffer more than others; but that too is part of what the philosophy states. Injustices happen; and when they do, you just have to pick yourself up and carry on. The courts are full of very bitter people, each taking legal action against their oppressors in the belief that they can find happiness through retribution. In the end, even the winners often find themselves bitter toward the lawyers who took advantage of their desire for revenge, and made a fortune out of it.

There is no world where everyone performs as you would like them to perform. You will always have times when you seem to be suffering more than most. But so what! Shit happens! And it happens to all of us. So, you were born deformed. So, you just lost someone in your family in a car accident. So, someone swindled you out of your life savings. So your wife ran off with another man. So, someone embarrassed you in front of your friends. What are you going to do about it? Are you going to hate the person through whom you suffered? Are you going to hate God? Or are you going to learn something positive from the experience? If you just blame others, you will only hurt yourself.

The Bible says that "All things work together for good to those who love God, and who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28) It is the hard times that can develop the greatest character. Tragedies can make people so much more aware of how short life is, and they can cause us to use our lives to serve God and help others more. Physical misfortunes can teach us to develop more spiritual strength. And betrayals can cause us to put our faith more in the One who will never forsake us.

Admittedly, things like faith in God probably won't bring back dead loved ones, or make the deformities or other misfortunes go away. But then neither will bitterness. Either way, the damage has already been done. What we really need to find is a way to make our future better.

I recently spotted a bumper sticker put out by the Newcastle Mental Health Group. It simply said, "Question Your Attitudes". I thought, "What a remarkably profound statement!" It seems to cover the source of a wide range of mental health problems. Serious psychological problems so often stem from the fact that people, for one reason or another, never thought to question their own attitudes. They questioned everyone else except themselves. And bitterness, with its tendency to blame others, is one of the most convenient ways to do that. The bitter person needs to question whether bitterness is really a productive, helpful attitude for themselves or for anyone else. The person who hides bitterness from themselves must be willing to go even deeper, and question whether they are being honest when they deny being bitter altogether.

It is unlikely that any of us is totally free of bitterness. So question your own defensiveness about the subject. Could it be that you are harbouring some secret hatred toward someone who criticised you, or who hurt you in some other way? Is this attitude really helping you to be a better person? Or is it holding you back from life in all its fullness? What can you do today to resolve your bitterness and restore fullness to your life and to your relationship with other people?

(See also Adam's Sin, and Why Did My Father Die?)

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