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Oct 02 2010

Hatred, Emotional Baggage, the Book of Jonah, and the Lessons of Yom Kippur in Dealing with an Ex.

Published by at 6:50 pm under Advice,Knowing Relationships BLOG

Sometimes intimate relationships fail because the partners grow to hate each other’s company. “Hate.”  It’s a strong word.

Hatred is wild and strange.  I’ve counseled people who are dealing with an ex who is intoxicated by hatred.  Such people are willing to use children, the legal system, and vandalism to make a former partner’s life miserable. They do it in a gleeful frenzy. They are scary because they feed off their hatred and there’s no stopping them except by going to war against them and defeating them thoroughly.  Most of us don’t like going to war.

For most of us hatred is  uncomfortable.  For most of us, when we are angry we are angry about a principle, a value, something that seems bigger than the issue at hand.  But when anger shifts to hatred it’s because we’ve made the issue personal. Often people who like to hate are also proud of the fact that their values are so personally held.

Because hatred is a personal matter and because the pain associated with it is often so close to the surface, most folks shift from hatred to disgust.  Disgust is the way we put distance between our self and the thing we hate.  In disgust we don’t have to resolve the hatred. We can simply go past it and seek the more comfortable state of denial.  We resolve to simply never see, speak or think about the person we “used to” hate.  We do this for our protection, and sometimes for their protection. We cut them off.

There is an ancient story about someone, a midlife person, not a young adult, who is challenged to forgive in order to free himself of the hatred he carries.  But he can’t do it. He doesn’t want to leave the comfort of his disgust.  Instead he runs away from a chance at reconciliation.  This is the core of the story of the Book of Jonah, the Old Testament story about the man who was swallowed by a whale.

This ancient story is recited on Yom Kippur, the culmination of the Jewish New Year’s celebration, the Day of Atonement.  Yom Kippur is about forgiveness and reconciliation. The idea is to start the year with a clean slate.

There is a lesson in this tale for people who are single at midlife.  By midlife many of us have had at least one bitter relationship experience, usually more, and in order to start fresh in a new relationship, we need to address the challenge of forgiveness. However, as I’ve said, forgiving is difficult. It’s surprising how much easier it is to hold on to our resentments, grudges and even our hatreds.

If you start to forgive, or want to forgive, you have to think about what it is you hate and are going to forgive. Who wants to do that?

I have more to say about it but usually at this point people start to assemble their resistance to the idea. Therefore, let me put your mind at ease by telling you where we will end up several paragraphs from here:  There is all the difference in the world between forgiving and trusting.  If someone has been dangerous to you in the past, you can forgive them but you do not have to start trusting them again.

Now, back to the challenge of being forgiving.

When you cut someone off, you shut them out of your life, which is a drastic act.  At some level of your mind you have said, “What this person has done is unforgiveable.” In saying this, you have made a promise to yourself, an oath, an oath you will have to reconsider. Therefore, at the beginning of the Jewish observation of Yom Kippur, we listen to a prayer called Kol Nidre — the words mean, “all vows” — and  in it we ask to be released from the oaths we’ve taken.

Then we recite the many ways we ourselves might need forgiveness. It’s an exercise in humility, a very necessary part of the process and an easy one to resist. One year I was at a pre-Yom Kippur discussion group. Most of us were in our fifties.  Maybe we have to be at midlife before we can understand our real imperfections (as opposed to our imagined ones.)  One woman in the group said, “I never can relate to that section of the services because I never do anything wrong.” The conversation stopped momentarily.  No one knew what to say.  Someone, maybe the young rabbi, said, “That must be very nice for you,” and we went on.

Did I mention that we’re supposed to fast for 24 hours during Yom Kippur?  The fast starts at sundown and by mid afternoon people are cranky and irritable.  This irritability and impatience sets us up to hear the story of Jonah.

The book of Jonah is a story about a man who thought he was a nice guy.

Before going into the story, you have to know one reference. “Ninevah” is a town, and in the context of this story Ninevah is a place where anyone could find people easy to hate. So start by thinking of a group that’s easy to hate. Nazis? Terrorists?  Criminals?  A particularly sociopathic person you know?  A religious group that teaches hatred and persecutes others? A woman who stole someone’s mate? An ex-husband?  A best friend’s ex? You can do this.

At the beginning of the story, Jonah receives a call from God who tells him to go to Nineveh and warn them that, unless they change, all 120,000 of them are going to be destroyed by His Wrath.  Jonah would rather see them fry in Hell, wants no part in the rescue plan, and he takes a boat going  in the opposite direction.

While he’s asleep, there’s a storm so terrible it scares everyone around him. He stays asleep. It’s an interesting metaphor.  Sometimes we get so comfortable with our  own hatred we forget it’s there.  Those around us notice the storm but we are asleep to it.

Here’s a modern example, a letter from the files:

“Yes, I’m pissed off and furious. However, I also have a son who needs me right where I am, taking care of him, because she is too ‘busy’ to be a parent. So, I keep it to myself for the most part, and just do the best I can for the kiddo.”

I knew one family where the mother was mad as hell and she imagined she kept it to herself. If the kids said, “Are you angry?” she’d say “No” and put on this strange smile, eyes like points and a smile from the nose down.  The kids called it her “iron grin.” She’s hardly alone. Many of us believe that we can hide it when we are mad as hell.

Some believe that if you let the other person know how hurt and angry you are, then the other person wins.

In fairness, we have to acknowledge that it is never easy to be that angry.  I remember once asking a man who’d been arrested for throwing things at his wife, “What are you so angry about?”  He shook his head and backed away from me in his chair, “Doc. You don’t want to pull the cork on that bottle.”  Certainly he didn’t.

One woman so hated her ex that she avoided dealing with him directly and as a result she had to deal with him through lawyers. It cost her a lot of money. She had better uses for that money. She also hated the fact that she hated him. She denied the impact of her hatred on her own life. This made her much less intelligent in her dealings with him.

When we hate, and then hide from our own hatred, we take  parts of our Self, valuable qualities, and seal them over where they can’t be harmed, where can do no harm to others, and and also where we can’t take advantage of the character strengths they embody. Hide away your compassion and you don’t get to be compassionate.  Hide away your principled anger and you can only be angry in an unprincipled way.  But there they are, these character strengths, as precious as one of your physical organs, buried in all that baggage, hidden under the hatred. And that’s why you hold onto your baggage.

When you run away, you run like a child, with a little back-pack of stuff you don’t want to leave behind, and that was Jonah in the first chapter, asleep on top of his baggage while the storm raged.

The story of Jonah gets much more complicated. In the second chapter in order to get rid of all that stormy energy, the folks on the boat threw him overboard.  Suddenly the seas are calm.  I was in a men’s group a few years ago and we had a member who imagined he was a much nicer person than he actually was.  We asked him to leave the group. Things lightened up for us all and someone quoted an old Yiddish saying. In English it goes like this: “When he leaves the room, it feels like a good friend just walked in.”  This was what happened on the boat when they got rid of Jonah.

As for Jonah, he was immediately swallowed by a whale and everything went dark. If you are single at midlife, you yourself may have to spend a little time  in the belly of the whale. If you are driven by hatred, even in a small sense, there is a time when you just have to stop and calm down.

Jonah sits alone in the dark and laments.  He finally says to himself and God, “Okay, I’m ready to be a different person.”  This too is part of the midlife transformation. After you calm down something new springs up in your heart. There is a willingness that wasn’t there before.

As soon as the willingness appears in Jonah,  his story changes direction. The whale spits him out and he finds himself on the shores outside Ninevah. That’s another interesting metaphor. So often, as soon as a person is willing to take a next step, the opportunity appears.

Along with every new piece of inner growth, however, there is usually a test.  In the Jonah story, he goes to the Ninevites, says, “You people have to change,” and everyone says, “You’re right,” and everyone changes effortlessly. It’s a miracle! No arguments, no explanations, no grinding penance; just sudden, easy sunlight. All those evil people are happy and rejoicing. This is an Old Testament comedy moment because Jonah hates the easy success.  He curses. He is miserable. He says, “I’d rather be dead than witness this.”   You don’t often read about God making jokes in the Old or New Testament, but this is an example.

Jonah can’t stand the all the smiling faces and celebrating so he goes outside the city and sits in the sun where he can watch and sulk. This sets up the next joke. God makes a tree so Jonah is in the shade and Jonah mellows out a bit. Then God makes the tree die, Jonah’s in the hot sun again, and again he says that he’d rather be dead. So God says (and I’m inclined to hear the comment with a Jewish accent and read like a punch line to a joke), “What kind of a person are you that you can feel sorry for the death of tree which was a gift from me in the first place and then you do not care at all for possible death of 120,000 people who are clueless?”

That’s where the story ends. It ends with a question: How can you think of yourself as a compassionate person as long as you hold onto your hatred for people who are essentially clueless?  We in the congregation are supposed to handle this question.

Compassion for the clueless is not easy.  The Polish poet, Czelaw Milosz, said, “We always hope that somehow everything will be all right because others are better than we are.” But we can’t expect others to be more forgiving and compassionate that we are ourselves. In a relationship, we each have to contribute to the good will and resilience.  And this is true even when we decide that someone is not to be trusted.

Or, as another rather famous Jewish man said, “Forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”

There is a message here.  You can’t just pretend to be a nice person.  If you want renewal, you have to have genuine compassion. Again, this is not easy to do. The message of Yom Kippur seems to be this: If you are going to change, change deeply. Stop having an emotional investment in seeing other people suffer, especially clueless people.  Back off your oath that you will never forgive the so-and-so for whatever it was he, or she, did. It’s the New Year.

If you can’t do this, then you bring into the new year, (or the new relationship) the idea that it’s really okay to punish people you are close  to for doing things that might hurt you. You are invited to give that one up.

What you gain is a chance to make fresh start.

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