In his book, A More Excellent Way, Henry Wright says that Bitterness has 7 “underlings”:
1. Unforgiveness: once it’s part of your life, you won’t forgive. It keeps a record of all the wrongs that have ever happened to you by yourself and others, even towards people who are dead. It causes you to replay events over and over in your minds, often below your level of awareness. It starts in the mind as a thought, and then you feel it in your gut. It’s all coming from your lower natures.
2. Resentment: “Re” means repeated over and over again; “sent” means to send a message; so “resentment” sends a negative message over and over again, reinforcing thoughts like:
- I’m never going to forgive you.
- I’m weird, clumsy, ugly (or other words of self hatred)
It can project outward, so we blame others, and then we both agree; saying unkind words towards each other, causing wrangling and dispute to increase. We often see this in families and in spouses, but of course, it can happen anywhere. We hear someone saying something negative about a third person (as in listening to gossip and backbiting); their resentment attracts you and you take it in and believe it and their judgement attaches itself to you and you begin to believe it.
When you notice that a stage has been reached when enmity and threats are about to occur, you should immediately postpone discussion of the subject, until wranglings, disputations, and loud talk vanish, and a propitious time is at hand. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 178)
When the resentment in me, meets the resentment in you, we both become victims without knowing it. It’s like Velcro attaching to each other. We can use God as the “Unfastener” (one of the names of God found in the Long Healing Prayer).
3. Retaliation: is about getting even. It’s internalized long before it takes place (like adultery, you look at someone and think about it long before you act on it). Unforgiveness fuels resentment; resentment fuels retaliation, feeding the fire with a message “they’re going to pay for what they did”.
4. Anger and Wrath: tempt us to go deeper. The first three can be hidden by someone who is very deceptive. They can cover up their anger with a smile (for example, Southern Belles, perfect hostesses). Because they’ve been brought up to be “nice”, they won’t yell when they get angry, but turn it on themselves instead in the form of depression, often leading to substance abuse. They’re so busy pleasing other people, they have no thought about pleasing God.
It’s harder to hide anger and wrath, because these show themselves physically. We can see it in people’s eyes and body posture (clenched fists, clenched jaw etc). People lose control of their emotions with the thought: “I’m going to tell them what I think”, and their rage can manifest in a lot of uncontrolled yelling and screaming.
Another way anger and wrath manifests is through gossip and backbiting. For those who are still trying to “be nice”, they won’t speak directly to the person who they think wronged them, but instead speak to someone else instead. This is the root cause of all family split-ups, and breakdowns of all relationships. It turns into bitterness.
The Baha’i Writings tell us to:
“. . . avoid these two [anger and jealousy] as you would a lion”. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 460)
So when you catch yourself moving into anger, look that lion in the face and slowly back away.
5. Hatred: Hatred sets the stage for estrangement – cutting someone out of your life. Maybe you recognize one of these thoughts:
One of us has to go, and it’s not going to be me.
- I hate you so I’m going to hurt you.
- I hate me so I’m going to hurt me.
Outward expressions of hatred are easy to identify, but inner manifestations such as addictions, eating disorders, self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts and driving a car above the speed limit etc. are not. Someone exhibiting any of these thoughts or actions might think that their feelings of hatred are hidden, but if you hear someone telling you: “You’ve got to love yourself”, and you deny it, it’s a warning sign and needs to be paid attention to.
6. Violence: is anger plus hatred, in motion. Action is the result. It’s no longer an emotional or spiritual problem, but a physical one, such as physical, sexual or verbal abuse; shooting; cutting, binging and purging; excessive tattooing and body piercing; spending money you can’t afford; maxing out the credit cards etc.
How did ‘Abdu’l-Bahá respond to the violence of others? Here’s a story which illustrates his actions:
A Bahá’í came to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to speak on behalf of a young Persian, who was trying to attach himself to the Faith. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained that should anyone commit a hundred wrongs against His own person He would overlook them all and treat the offender with kindness; should anyone act treasonably towards His own person, He would act towards the offender as if he were someone most trusted, but He (‘Abdu’l-Bahá) could never countenance nor aid any deed which would injure the Faith. To murder Him, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, would be preferable to defrauding others; murdering Him would not harm the Faith, defrauding people would. (H.M. Balyuzi, Abdu’l-Bahá – The Centre of the Covenant, p. 393)
He also asked God for forgiveness:
O God, my God! Lowly, suppliant and fallen upon my face, I beseech Thee with all the ardor of my invocation to pardon whosoever hath hurt me, forgive him that hath conspired against me and offended me, and wash away the misdeeds of them that have wrought injustice upon me. Vouchsafe unto them Thy goodly gifts, give them joy, relieve them from sorrow, grant them peace and prosperity, give them Thy bliss and pour upon them Thy bounty. Thou art the Powerful, the Gracious, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting! (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Will and Testament, p. 19)
7. Murder: can be both a physical murder; or murder of the tongue. We can destroy people’s lives with our words through slander, calumny, vilifying, defamation of character or gossip and backbiting.
For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 264)
Baha’u’llah says that a murderer must atone for his sins, but if he’s punished in this world, he won’t be punished in the next:
As to the question regarding the soul of a murderer, and what his punishment would be, the answer given was that the murderer must expiate his crime: that is, if they put the murderer to death, his death is his atonement for his crime, and following the death, God in His justice will impose no second penalty upon him, for divine justice would not allow this. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 179)
All of these stages start from within; from a thought arising from our lower natures.
Bitterness keeps us from inner peace and tranquility, and can’t be dealt with until all of these seven steps are stripped away. It’s easy to think that we aren’t victims of bitterness, but we probably all have suffered manifestations of all of these steps at one point or another in our lives. Even if we’re perfectly loving, our culture is so immersed in gossip and backbiting, it’s almost impossible to break free. And ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us that once we are free of one vice, another one pops up in it’s place.
Just as the earth attracts everything to the centre of gravity, and every object thrown upward into space will come down, so also material ideas and worldly thoughts attract man to the centre of self. Anger, passion, ignorance, prejudice, greed, envy, covetousness, jealousy and suspicion prevent man from ascending to the realms of holiness, imprisoning him in the claws of self and the cage of egotism. The physical man, unassisted by the divine power, trying to escape from one of these invisible enemies, will unconsciously fall into hands of another. No sooner does he attempt to soar upward than the density of the love of self, like the power of gravity, draws him to the centre of the earth. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í Scriptures, p. 241)
For more in this series: