Bitterness is defined as anger, disappointment and resentment at being treated unfairly. I have been treated unfairly many times in my life and it has indeed made me angry, disappointed and resentful. I think bitterness is a universal human emotion. We all experience great moments of anger and resentment when we are treated in a poor manner or when someone betrays us. It is hard to get over this treatment and even harder to forget it. We remember it because it hurt us so deeply. These cuts are difficult to heal. Understanding bitterness means peering inside ourselves to figure out what is causing such a strong emotional response.
Maya Angelou stated: “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.” That is the dirty truth about bitterness. It eats away at the host. So often the object of our bitterness is off living their life and not even aware of our gnawing tangle of raw emotion. Bitterness therefore hurts US most of all; it is brutally self-destructive. When we eat something bitter we recoil from the taste. Imagine gobs of bitter food being shoveled into our mouths. It would make us very sick. Emotional bitterness is the same way. It can make us very sick. I should know: I have suffered from bitterness for a very long time.
There are things that people have done to me and ways that people have treated me that make me filled with rage. That level of rage is seldom sustainable, so it converts into bitterness. It becomes then like a slow burn, churning away and eating away ever so slowly at your insides. Even when I realized I was beholden to bitterness, I thought it was okay because the objects of my anger deserved my scorn. But the objects of my anger never felt my scorn because they were no longer in my life. Thus it was me directing this scorn and anger against myself. I had set up an unhealthy dynamic with bitterness. This is not something I have solved; it is very much ongoing. But I am becoming more aware of it, and know that it will be a process of letting go of past disappointments and resentments.
I strongly agree with and “get” the first half of Angelou’s quote. I am not so sure about the second half. I think distinguishing between anger and bitterness is not as clear-cut as she implies. If bitterness is what we want to get rid of, how do we enter a stage of healthy anger to “burn it all clean”? Perhaps a ritual in which one channels a healthy sort of anger could do the trick, willfully pushing the bitterness out and away. I would say that the way to get rid of bitterness that makes the most sense to me is forgiveness. Forgiveness does not eat away at the host; in fact, it does quite the opposite. It liberates the host, feeds and nourishes the host and frees up space for the spirit and soul of the host. It may well send good vibes to the other person as well, but that is not the point. Forgiveness does not mean condoning past acts of cruelty, abuse or oppression. It means using one’s agency to let go of those past mistreatments in order to heal the self, in order to push out bitterness to make room for love, peace and harmony. However attained, we have the power to “burn it all clean.” The question is: will we? In my prayers tonight, I will ask God to help me find ways to clean out the bitterness, so that I may be liberated from it. I wish the same for all.