As our thinking advances, we are more able to think independently. But that doesn’t mean our claim of independence is valid.
For instance, it can be threatened by our intransigent passion, e.g., by resentment. The two kinds of resentments I want to address here are those that exist because of a felt conviction that we were wronged and those whose imprint we bear, albeit not through personal experience.
It is obvious that many horrific injustices exist in the world. But in many cases, our grounds for resentment are “local.” For instance, they may be based on a wounded ego or on real failures of relationship. Or they may exist because others made sure that we bear their grievances, hatred, prejudices and rationale.
Yes, if we were insulted or wronged, we can “make sense” of the emergent resentment and find others who will nod their heads in agreement. And yes, if we simply bear the resentment of others, we can jump on the bandwagon of like-minded souls indulging the punitive moralizing.
Yet, if we are to understand what it means to be in possession of ourselves, it is a mistake to allow our minds to be inhibited and tormented by resentment. Indeed, when our mind’s ability to mind itself is poisoned and corrupted by resentment, so too is our judgment and herein lies the rub.
Forgiveness is said by some to be the antidote to the toxicity of personal resentment. However, we have to be careful. For example, suppose our resentment is a misguided result of our rejected desire to possess another or of a prudish sense of right and wrong or of other forms of narrow-mindedness.
In such cases, forgiving may be a red herring, a diversion intended to distract attention from the main issue. If we have judged another wrong to justify our resentment, then forgiveness validates a judgment that exists only because of our resentment in the first place.
Because the toxic properties of resentment inhibit what we can think, say and do, we must depend upon the creative mobility of our minds to handle it. If the resentment is actually warranted, holding a grudge still sorely compromises our judgment. In such case, we can try to address it productively with the person or persons involved. Otherwise, we can forget about it; we can metabolize the resentment. Certainly, we can choose not to validate or harbor it. After all, we are artists and chemists of our choices and not pawns of the passionate force of resentment.
Regarding the resentment whose imprint we bear: Yes, there are limits to self-understanding, to plumbing the depths of influence from which we come. However, experience, information and intention may motivate us to examine the roots of the imprint—the belief—and yield in its place the lightness and comfort of union, connection and belonging.
In sum, as students of autonomy and life, we struggle with our determination—how we were determined by nature, history and language.
We struggle to be cognitively skilled with the novel. But we also struggle to be cognitively skilled with that to which we are subject—the stored potential of our cognitive mechanism — because our causal efficacy is subject to the reflexive responsiveness of the mechanism that supports it. This means we struggle to overcome the intransigence of our resentment whenever and wherever it shows up.
Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes.