On Resentment

When I was in high school, I had a very close friend, and she was beautiful. She was widely considered to be the most popular girl in our school. She was also wealthy, smart, well-traveled, and kind. She was homecoming queen (even though she didn’t want it). The boy with the bowl cut who wore Converse–who I had a crush on for nearly four years–fell in love with her. In my senior year, she won the award for “Best Writer” that I coveted so much. Just before graduation, one of my teachers said that high schools shouldn’t have a valedictorian, that high schoolers had not lived long enough to have anything useful to say.

We were graduating, and my friend was going to France for a gap year. I had never been to a city larger than Spokane. She had closets full of stylish clothes. I bought my own clothes from Target with the money I made from working at a bookstore during the day, and as a dishwasher at a restaurant at night.

After making her grand statement about a valedictorian, that same teacher looked at my friend and said “Except for X. She might have something important to say.”

I was sitting behind X.

I wanted to have something important to say.

I felt invisible next to X, but I played my role well. I played the role of the funny sidekick, and it worked. Our friendship was genuine. We loved each other with the intensity with which high school girls love. At night, we lit candles, put on The Cure, and sprawled out next to each other on my bed. We talked, or stared at the ceiling of my room, which was a mixture of glittery plaster. In the candlelight, the glitter looked like stars. We stared at those stars and talked about what we wanted for our lives.

Our hopes had no limits. We hadn’t lived long enough to learn the limitations of hope yet.

Still, I resented my friend. It was an ugliness that I am ashamed to own, and I had to struggle with that every day, with resenting the very person I loved.

Finally, after we were both in college and had organically grown apart, I was able to tell myself that my life was no worse because someone else’s life seemed better. That philosophy stuck. I no longer resented my friends. Now, I sometimes resent people who I wouldn’t like anyway, but the people I love are sacred.

—–

My best friend, Kelly M., is a poet. She’s a beautiful writer and person. We are adults, but have the same kind of love that I had with my friend in high school (minus the resentment). We speak on the phone nearly every day. We can talk for hours. Talking to her brings me such joy. She is pregnant, and if I wasn’t going to Belgium on a writer’s residency when she has the baby, I would travel to be with her. She is as important to me as any of my family members. She told me the other day that someone asked her if it’s hard for her to see my career taking off so quickly, and she said that she was glad to be able to say no.

She was glad to say that she only feels happiness for me.

I only want friends in my life who feel happiness for me.

Kelly M. has a lovely marriage with a partner who is deeply invested in gender equity. She has a beautiful, intelligent toddler. She has another baby on the way. When I look at her family, I sometimes feel sadness for myself that I don’t have the same, but I only feel happiness for her. I don’t resent her.

My love for her is sacred.

—-

I ran into an acquaintance recently at the bakery in town, and she congratulated me on my book. I told her how much I like my editor, and she said “You kind of had your choice of editor, right? That’s so rare.” She was right. It is rare. I am extremely fortunate. She then said, “Sometimes, when things like that happen to someone you know, you feel kind of grumpy, but when I heard your news, I thought of how easy it is to be happy for you.”

I appreciated her honesty. I know those grumpy feelings; I get them too. Still, I was glad  to hear that she found it easy to be happy for me.

As Kelly M. said to me, “Who would want to switch places with you? Who would want to go through what you went through to get to where you are now?”

After I agreed to the preliminary agreement for my book contract, my agent called me. It was late at night, and I sat alone on my couch. I had no one to celebrate with in person. She was in a cab in New York City. She got out of the cab, and I heard her pay the driver. She sat in the lobby of a building and choked up as she spoke to me. We were both teary. She is one of my biggest advocates, and I consider her a friend. She told me that she knew that writing this book was going to be hard for me, that I was going to have to relive things that no one would ever want to relive. She told me to prepare myself. She also told me to be careful, that writers are, by nature, jealous. She told me to protect myself.

I worried about that potential jealousy for a while, but all that I have received from other writers is support. The best things in my life are due to the generosity of other writers. This is not because my agent was wrong. I think that writers very often are jealous. Writing is so often a thankless profession, and we are put in the position of being in competition with each other. It is difficult not to be jealous under these conditions. Still, after my toxic marriage, I raised my standards for the people who I allow into my life, and so, the writers I am closest to are good people. They are, hopefully, people who are able to be happy for me without resentment.

Right now, my career is very, very good, but I am still a single mother, an abuse survivor, overworked, and I am often lonely (which is difficult for someone who values companionship so much).

But, I shouldn’t have to list the things that I have working against me because this is not a competition of suffering.

Competition is another aspect of resentment. Who has suffered more? Who is suffering more right now? Who suffers the most?

The truth is that we all suffer. There is no point resenting someone because we think that their suffering is less than ours. That will do nothing to assuage our own suffering. It will only feed our own suffering.

(I do think it is important to recognize our own privilege, that others might suffer more for reasons that are out of their control, and that it is important for those of us with privilege to offer our support in whatever ways that we can.)

—-

When things were at their worst with Caleb, and he was getting multiple forms of mental health treatment, he made a list of his resentments. At the top of his list was “Other people’s success.” That was who Caleb was. He didn’t want happiness for other people because he lived a life of comparisons, and if other people were happier or more successful than him, then it somehow reflected badly upon his own life.

Caleb had a friend who was a fairly successful writer. This friend had only treated Caleb with kindness (the friend probably had a slightly paternalistic way of treating Caleb, but this friend was also older than Caleb). This friend didn’t know it, but Caleb resented him, and Caleb’s resentment turned into a kind of hatred.

What happens to that kind of hatred?

It turns into self-hatred.

And what does self-hatred do to men like Caleb?

It makes them lash out at the people closest to them. It made Caleb lash out at me. Caleb hated that man, and he hated himself, and he took that hatred out with his fists, but he used those fists on me.

Resentment is the seed of violence.

Entitlement becomes the root.

—-

I tried to “fix” Caleb’s resentment. It was a hopeless task and only served to make me resentful myself. And given enough time, resentment turns to bitterness. On my worst days, I am bitter, but for the most part, I have escaped that fate.

On most days, I am grateful. I am grateful for the people in my life who are able to be happy for me because their love doesn’t have conditions attached to it. I am grateful that I no longer resent my friends for reasons that are out of their control. I am grateful that my life is my own, and only I can live it. I am grateful that I can make my own decisions.

I have chosen to live this life alone. I have chosen to share my struggles openly (despite the risks attached to this kind of disclosure). I have chosen to commit myself to my friendships and connections. I have chosen to try to respond with thoughtfulness to everyone who writes to me. I have chosen the life of an activist. I have chosen to prioritize my writing as art rather than as a way of making money, but I have also chosen to advocate for myself financially when I need it–that I do not have to live in poverty in order to be a writer.

I have choices. I am no longer powerless. I am empowered because I learned, early on, that the only antidote to resentment is love.

And now, I have something important to say.

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