In his book, Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life, Rabbi Harold Kushner shares the most important life lessons from his fifty years of service in Boston. After finishing his rabbinic training as a young man, he was equipped with the answers to change the lives of his congregants. What he found were questions that didn’t match those answers. He concludes, “The religion I teach and practice is very different from the religion I was taught.”

I relate to that statement as I’ve discovered the world to be much less black and white than how I used to see it. At times I’m confused and overwhelmed by the complexities that exist and the uncertainty I sometimes feel. Over the past few years I’ve found great value in searching for truth from many different sources. As one of my life-changing books, this is one of those sources. I recommend it for anyone with a belief in God. I recommend it for anyone who questions their belief in God, but still holds out hope that there’s something greater. It’s for anyone who questions the relevance of traditional religious teachings for today’s sometimes unanswerable questions. In a world where many are leaving religion, Rabbi Kushner argues that belief in God is still relevant today.

While I absolutely loved the entire book, chapter four was a revelation for me. I am, by nature, a grudge holder, and have been for most of my life. I’m guessing that with certain people, and certain circumstances you probably are too. Rabbi Kushner points out that “revenge is everybody’s favorite sin.” Of course he caught my attention when he recounted the story of Edmund Dantes in one of the greatest novels ever written, The Count of Monte Cristo. Dantes completes one of the truly epic stories of revenge – the way we all like to see our story play out – and the reader has great satisfaction when justice is served for the wrongs committed. 

And even if the perfect ending to our story of justice never materializes, at least those who offended us will suffer in the false narrative we create in our own minds…! Yet, that rarely, if ever, quenches the burning thirst and brings true happiness or joy. According to Kushner, “To harm someone else who has harmed you is to harm yourself a second time.” Our desire for revenge isn’t about justice, it’s about claiming power over the person who has harmed us. But, any attempt we make to get even only gives that person even more power.

In a recent post I described a very difficult and challenging time at work – a time when I felt wronged, betrayed, and unfairly criticized. It was more upsetting than I could’ve imagined and I spent too many hours living in my head replaying the same argument of why they were wrong. But that never brought peace. It only brought suffering. Not because of what was done to me, but because of the way I chose to think about it, process it, and ruminate on it. Their actions were in the past, yet I was still a prisoner to the pain in the present. 

It was Rabbi Kushner’s words that saved me. “Forgive for your sake. Don’t give anyone the power to define you as a victim.” I felt that my intentions and actions were done in good faith and I had acted with integrity.  We all have the power to define and live our lives how we want, regardless of the circumstances that surround us. Bearing that grudge allows the offending party to continue to wield power long after the offense is complete. 

How true is that in our daily lives? Are you still holding grudges from last week? Last month? Last year? Many years?And has that grudge served us any tangible benefit? The answer for me is a resounding no! What’s keeping you from letting it go now? I have personally spent too much time in life worrying about the wrongs that have been done (though I have gotten better). It has taken up too much time, too much mental energy and has yielded zero fruit. Those events all lie in the past. Happiness is now.

Perhaps my favorite quote is this, “The only power we have is to stop obsessing about things and evict the incident from our thoughts. Until we do that, we perpetuate our role as the victim. Keep doing that long enough and you may not be able to see yourself in any other role.” 

What a blessing it is to have these words! I’m grateful they came at a time when I could use them as they’ve allowed me to unload a burden that I hope to never pick up again. We read a lot about victims these days, specifically about groups who have been treated poorly. But ask yourself, when have you played the victim in your life? Are you playing it now?

As a victim you lose out on the power to control your own life and you give up power to lift others. As a victim you’ll never be able to love someone as they are and where they are. As a victim you’ll never find the clarity to move closer to God or to find yourself.

We may think to ourselves that our situation is different and that the offense truly merits retribution, or a well-thought out grudge until restitution is made. From personal experience I can say that this isn’t the case. Forgiveness for your sake, regardless of the contrition of others, is the only thing that will bring peace. It is the greatest gift you can give yourself.

  • Betsy
    2 years ago
    This book sounds like one I need to add to my list. Along with so many others you have recommended! I don’t know that I have thought about forgiveness being a tool to help me stay in the present moment. Thank you for your insight! You keep me thinking!
  • Ann Head
    2 years ago
    Beautifully said. I needed to hear this and shared with my family! Thank you!
    • Nate
      2 years ago
      Ann, you're the best! Thanks for sharing it with your fam. It really is such a good book and a great chapter.