February 5, 2017

A Heart Stained in Anger

Guest Contributor: Rabbi E. Noach Shapiro, LCSW
“A heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter.
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
wrapped up in a trap of your very own
chain of sorrow.”
(John Prine, Chain of Sorrow)
Someone once said, “Nursing a grudge against someone is like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die.” As a rabbi with a pulpit for 10 years and now as a rabbi-psychotherapist, I have long had an interest in the multi-layered notion of forgiveness and its psychological twin: resentment.
In Jewish tradition, we tend to talk a lot about teshuvah (repentance) and not very much about forgiveness. We think we are talking about both at the same time because Maimonides tells us if someone does sincere teshuvah – repentance three times in front of witnesses – the aggrieved person “has” to forgive that person. In fact, Rambam says, if he refuses to forgive, then his status actually moves from victim to “sinner.” In Rambam’s formulation, forgiveness is the natural result of sincere teshuvah.
But what if there is no teshuvah? What if the perpetrator is not sorry? What if the perpetrator is dead, a stranger or otherwise unavailable? Does the person who has been victimized have no recourse but to live with the toxic anger and bitterness left in the wake of the wrong done to them? Isn’t this yet another spiritual assault on someone who was wholly innocent to begin with?
Let’s not mistake these as simply some interesting philosophical-theological musings – the stakes are very high.
Along with a couple of her friends, the young daughter of a very close friend of mine – we’ll call the friend “Jane” – was molested many years ago by a neighbor who was, at the time, a close friend of Jane and her husband. When the truth came out, the neighbor was arrested, tried and found guilty.
The girls involved, along with their families, were, of course, traumatized by what happened. Though he was arrested, convicted and jailed and even though, with some therapy, Jane’s daughter had completely recovered from the trauma and was thriving again in school and in life, for a long time, Jane found it impossible to let the incident go. As time went on, instead of receding, her rage increased in volume and depth. It was the outrage and cruelty of this man’s betrayal, someone who had called himself their friend, that kept her up every night, ruined her days, strained her marriage and threatened to wholly consume her life.
Jane, a recovering addict, had an ex-husband who was a very powerful gang leader in the same jail system as the man who molested her daughter. Her ex-husband had adored Jane when they married at a very young age and had even supported her in her recovery from drug addiction, encouraging her to leave the street life they shared, knowing it would mean they would never see each other again. As he put her on the bus to leave the city where they lived together, he made it clear that he would always be there for her if she needed anything.
Though now, years later, Jane lived an entirely different life as a drug counselor, wife and mother, she became obsessed with the notion of asking her ex-husband to have the molester killed in prison. After many months of spiraling anguish, she even visited her ex-husband in jail. When she told him what happened to her daughter, all he said was: “Just give me his name and this will be over in 24 hours.”
But at the last moment, something prevented Jane from telling him the molester’s name and she walked out of the jail literally shaking as she thought about how close she had come to being responsible for a man’s murder.
Soon after that, Jane recognized that her rage at this man’s betrayal, though completely justified by what he had done, had triggered other incidents and trauma in her own, pre-recovery life. At the end of the day, her rage almost killed him and ruined her life.
Although this not the place to go into a longer discussion of this, I will share with you a clue from the book of Jonah about how we might start to get past toxic anger towards forgiveness and healing.
The general outline of the story of Jonah is a familiar one: G-d wants Jonah to preach to the wicked Ninevites, showing the errors of their way and announcing G-d’s imminent decision to destroy them as a result. Inexplicably, Jonah is something less than excited about this gig and runs away to get away from it – cue large fish, et cetera. When Jonah is finally forced to preach to the Ninevites, they do a remarkable thing: total, radical and sincere teshuvah; they completely change their ways.
You would think the story would end here with a big ol’ biblical “happily ever after.” You would think that Jonah would revel in his newly assumed mantle as the World’s Most Effective – albeit initially reluctant – Prophet.
But you would be wrong. Actually, Jonah’s response to G-d’s forgiving the Ninevites was rage; pure and consuming rage. He is outraged that G-d schlepped him all the way Nineveh against his will to deliver what was supposed to be a pro forma, pre-total-destruction warning, only to have G-d accept the Ninevites’ teshuvah and actually forgive them.
So, what is Jonah’s problem with citizens of Nineveh? Why did he clearly not relish his role as agent of their redemption? And having instigated one of the Ancient World’s mostly wildly successful spiritual turn-arounds, why in the world was Jonah so mad that G-d forgave them?
We don’t know for sure, as the Bible doesn’t tell us. But we do know that Jonah’s anger drove him right into the arms of despair. We know that not once, but twice, in the immediate aftermath of the people’s change of heart, Jonah begs G-d to kill him. Jonah is depressed and sickened, poisoned by the toxicity of his own anger.
In response, G-d makes a leafy plant grow over Jonah in one day and protect him from the burning sun as he lies around the desert presumably raging about the people of Nineveh and soliloquizing about what a big wimp G-d is for forgiving them. Jonah, the Bible reports, experiences extraordinary joy and comfort from this plant which is sheltering him; he becomes instantly attached to it.
Just one day after creating the plant that Jonah now loves, G-d sends a worm to kill it. After the plant dies, Jonah is emotionally devastated; he is in complete despair over its loss. Not knowing what else to do, Jonah literally begs G-d to kill him on the spot ending his misery and grief.
Why does G-d play with Jonah’s emotions like this? Why does he seduce him into falling in love with his protector-plant, only to cruelly yank it away from him forever?
With tremendous gentleness, with love, G-d says, “Jonah, if you are ready to die in the wake of the loss and grief you feel about the death of this plant which you did not create, did nothing for, and that you only knew for a day—can you imagine how I, G-d, the Creator of all Things, would feel about destroying the Ninevites who are also my children?”
G-d ultimately rescues Jonah from his agony of resentment and anger by helping Jonah see that his anger was actually intense and unresolved grief.
Jane’s anger that drove her to the precipice of murder was really grief for her daughter and for the young girl she used to be whose innocent childhood was shattered and taken from her by trauma and abuse.
And what is the tool by which G-d sets Jonah on a trajectory of healing and forgiveness? Empathy. G-d introduces the notion to Jonah that the Ninevites, although deeply flawed and capable of evil, were not monsters. They were human beings capable of great cruelty but also sincere teshuvah – just like the rest of us.
In this way, I think the seeds of liberation from resentment emerge first from the re-recognition of the perpetrator’s humanity and will, with patience and compassion for our own grief, slowly grow from there.

Rabbi E. Noach Shapiro, LCSW is currently a rabbi-therapist in private practice in Montclair, NJ. He was a congregational Rabbi for several years before making his transition to therapeutic work and is the father of junior Eran and Ziva ‘14.

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