The Healing Power of Holding a Grudge

Our softy culture says we should forgive even the most heinous crimes. Sometimes it’s healthier not to.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

Last week a man bumped into me on Fifth Avenue.

“Out of the way, tutti-frutti!” he boomed, eliciting shocked glances from passersby. As I scanned for a cop, I thought, “What kind of crazy, Little Richard–inspired hate speech was that?” But the moment quickly passed. The quaintness of this old-school 1950s insult gradually sank in. I elected to turn the other cheek and move on. This is unusual for me. I am typically more about grudge-bearing than forgiveness.

Almost 15 years ago a good friend of mine was murdered. The attacker offed himself shortly after committing the crime, so there was no opportunity for justice. At my pal’s funeral, a New Age preacher suggested to the congregation of grieving family and friends that it was “not too early to start thinking about forgiveness.” I was stunned, as was the victim’s sister, standing next to me. We had barely begun to navigate the horror and unfairness of our loss. Now we had to contend with a lay shaman exhorting us to move forward and to “let the healing begin.” I was ready to cut her.

This bizarre moment is etched in my memory. It was my first encounter with the now-ubiquitous forgiveness movement. The basic idea seems to be that the only way to come to terms with the murder or rape of a loved one is to forgive the perp. This notion has gained serious traction. In days gone by it was only the Man Upstairs who could pardon and absolve. Now everybody is taking a crack at it.

On a website called Give Forgiveness, viewers are treated to a quote from Joan Lunden:

“Holding on to anger, resentment and hurt only gives you tense muscles, a headache and a sore jaw from clenching your teeth. Forgiveness gives you back the laughter and the lightness in your life.”

This lovely thought seems to express the prevailing opinion. Regardless of how horrid your experience, you owe it to yourself to forgive so that you can bypass all that pain and anger and resume your life of nonstop chuckles, shoe shopping, and umbrella drinks.

In recent years there has been no shortage of high-profile forgiveness fests. Mary Jo Buttafuoco forgave Amy Fisher, the Long Island Lolita, for shooting her in the head at point-blank range. At one of his many parole hearings, Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s killer, perturbed his interlocutors by suggesting that his victim would have forgiven him by now. (Impressively, Yoko Ono, a promoter of forgiveness in general, has repeatedly said she’s not ready to forgive Chapman.)

In 2010 a lad in Tallahassee, Fla., named Conor McBride shot his girlfriend in the head. As she was clinging to life-support, her father says he somehow sensed her pleading with him to forgive Conor. He forgave the young man.*

On March 7, just over a month after Oscar Pistorius was arrested on suspicion of murdering girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, the uncle of the deceased beauty told CNN, “I would like to be face to face with him [Pistorius] and forgive him, forgive him [for] what he’s done and that way I can find most probably more peace with the situation but tell him face to face.”

Most recently, we have the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case. Last month, the mother of the victim shocked the courtroom when she told one of the rapists that she forgave him. Though I disagree wildly with her position, I can understand how she ended up there. Immersed in our culture of healing and kumbaya, and confronted with the sobbing, apologetic 16-year-old perp, she probably felt obliged to say something. But instead of offering to forgive him, how about a little helpful advice, for example: “Young man, terrible acts have terrible consequences. You must take your punishment like a man, and then, when you have paid your debt to society, you will be given a chance to rebuild your life. Don’t fuck it up.”

It’s easy to blame Oprah for the hug-it-out quick fix, but I think the responsibility lies with ourselves. We have all gotten a little squishy and confused. I suggest that we take a breath and try to sort the forgivable from the unforgivable. Here’s a start: If some drunken jerk wants to pick a fight or insults your choice of shoe, then by all means turn the other cheek. But rape and murder? Not so much.

At one time, knowing that some actions are beneath the valley of the forgivable—the Holocaust, murder, rape, animal cruelty—gave our existence a little structure. All we have are our teensy, fragile, tutti-frutti lives. If taking them away is forgivable, then we are left vulnerable, blowing in the wind, clutching our handbags and manbags, and hoping for the best.

On a less serious note, let’s talk about grudges. I am a firm believer that grudges and the bearing thereof can be less burdensome than Joan Lunden might think. In some instances they can actually be quite invigorating.

I have loads of chips on my shoulder, and I particularly enjoy munching through them while I am working out. I got the idea from an interview with Michael Phelps. He enlivens his grueling training schedule by mulling over previous slights and grievances. Get mad, and the time just flies by.

 Here, for inspirational purposes, are a couple of the sizzling gripes that I am currently nurturing in my bosom:

  • The plight of pachyderms: I am beyond enraged at the people who unforgivably decimate the elephant population in order to feed the unforgivable Chinese appetite for ivory. Ditto rhino horns.
  • Naff news-anchors: I have grudges against all the network “journalists” and “current affairs news analysts.” Vivacious personalities, spray tans, blown-out hair … and that’s just the men. For a gruesome example, check out CNN’s new panel-fest, (Get to) the Point. This nightly over-rehearsed opinion match is screaming for a Saturday Night Live parody.
  • Sadistic schoolmarms: When I recall the violence visited upon myself and my scabby-kneed cohorts at my British primary school back in the 1950s, I can still get all riled up. Was it really necessary to clobber us on the head with that solid mahogany blackboard peg? Mrs. Pocock, I’m talking to you!

When I run out of grudges I often go back to remembering my old pal. At first I think about how insanely fun and life-enhancing he was. Inevitably, after musing for a while, I start to get irate at the injustice of his death, and I can feel my body fill with anger. But I wear that clenched jaw and tension headache—sorry, Joan Lunden—as a badge of honor. Out of respect for the memory of my pal, I will carry that rage and indignation to my grave. No forgiveness necessary.

Correction, April 4, 2013: This article originally stated that Conor McBride’s girlfriend forgave him on her deathbed. The NYT article reported that the woman’s father, while alone in her hospital room, “felt her say, ‘Forgive him.’ ” But she never verbally articulated the forgiveness herself. (Return.)