God Is Just
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., February 1976
How easy it is to be taken in by a treacherous human failing
EARLY IN MY AA experience, I became well acquainted with two older members who resented each other. I liked both men, and each had helped me in certain ways. But each man also told me what the other was doing wrong. It was evident that there was a lot of bad feeling between them.
Both men eventually drank again, despite having been AA stalwarts for several years. Nobody can say that their resentments toward each other caused them to drink, but this bad feeling certainly wasn’t a healthy condition in their sobriety. And even if several factors may lead a person to drink again, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that resentments are like the proverbial straws that break the camel’s back.
Most of us in AA know the danger of resentments. We talk about resentments often. “To resent is to drink, and to drink is to die” is a bit of AA logic that is almost never questioned. Then why did my friends, like many other fine AA members, become victimized by resentments?
Maybe the clue word here is “justified.” Each of my friends probably knew that his strong feelings were akin to the feelings that go with resentment. But each also insisted that he had good reason to feel as he did. One would say, defensively, “I don’t resent him! I just feel sorry for anybody who’s so damned stupid, that’s all!” The other would say, “That fellow really has an odd way of following the AA program. He works the program to suit himself.”
I was no help to either man, partly because I was a newcomer, but mostly because each member was so persuasive in describing the other’s faults. I’m sorry to say I tended to agree with each person’s point of view at the time he was airing his grievances! Since then, there have been countless other times when I’ve agreed with the justification for resentments which I or others have held. Only later did I reconsider my views and realize that I’d been taken in by a treacherous human failing. What I should have known from the beginning is that there is no such thing as a justified resentment, any more than there’s such a thing as a justified first drink.
Emmet Fox called resentment and condemnation the “swing doors to hell” and repeatedly warned his readers to check themselves for such negative feelings, which would usually be disguised in some clever way. In his book The Sermon on the Mount, he referred to an old sermon, delivered during the French Revolution, in which the speaker said that it was surely justifiable to hate the arch-butcher Robespierre and to condemn a certain murderer. But Fox pointed out that we heap trouble on our own heads when we entertain such negative feelings, and that the question whether the man Robespierre was, in fact, a demon or an angel of light has nothing to do with the matter. “You might just as well swallow a dose of prussic acid in two gulps, and think to protect yourself by saying, ‘This one is for Robespierre; and this one for the. . .murderer,’ ” Fox wrote. “You will hardly have any doubt as to who will receive the benefit of the poison.”
Wise words, but difficult to remember in the heat of emotion. I first read this in 1951 and have since quoted it frequently in AA talks and at closed discussion meetings. Very few AA members will argue with this logic; it fits the AA program like a glove. It is widely understood in AA that we are seeking a measure of peace and happiness, as well as sobriety, and almost any of us will admit that severe resentment can rob us of all three. When truly understood and accepted, this explanation leaves little room for any justification of a resentment.
As I ponder the problem, however, I am conscious of my own poor track record in putting this knowledge into practice. Why does the justified resentment hang on so tenaciously? Here are several reasons from my own experience and observations. There must be additional reasons that I haven’t been able to understand, because resentment is one of my major problems.
One reason that we have trouble facing the truth about resentment is that “everybody does it.” Justified resentments are acceptable to most people, not just to alcoholics. There is a dangerous backlog of bitterness and hatred in the world. A man resents the loss of a job, for example, and spends a great deal of time inveighing against the people or conditions that brought about his termination. An individual is bitter against a doctor who bungled an operation or a lawyer who mishandled an important legal matter. There are deep resentments over business and financial problems, and the world seethes with political and religious hatreds. It is possible to find groups and organizations that virtually owe their existence to commonly shared resentments of various kinds. Quite often, resentments take on a certain amount of respectability when they are endorsed by prominent individuals or prestige organizations.
As a recovered alcoholic, however, I have to remind myself that no amount of social acceptance of resentments will take the poison out of them. In a way, the problem of resentments is a lot like the drinking problem. Alcohol is never safe for me, no matter who is offering it. I have attended cocktail receptions at worthy organizations, often in a friendly atmosphere that makes drinking seem almost harmless. Just as I politely but firmly decline alcohol under any conditions, so must I refuse to accept resentments, no matter who is serving them!
I’ve often found that there’s a connection between my fears and my resentments. If I secretly fear that I am inadequate, I will deeply resent anybody whose actions or statements expose my inadequacy. It is too painful to admit that my own doubts and fears about myself are the cause of my resentments. It is much easier to find bad behavior or selfish motives in the other person and to use that as the justification for my resentment.
I once resented a person who was a threat to me at work. Several others who felt similarly threatened shared my resentment. Soon we found that the person had all kinds of shortcomings to justify our resentment; he was “pushy,” “smart-alecky,” “out for himself,” and “too much in a hurry.” Yet we often found the same traits admirable when they appeared in people who did not threaten us.
In this case, the justification came after the fact; I resented a person, and then I produced logical reasons for my negative feelings. I was, of course, guilty of being dishonest about my real feelings. The fundamental error, however, was in thinking that justification somehow made resentment acceptable and harmless. This venture in self-deception did not work, of course, because my anxiety and fears were compounded by my resentment, and there may have been an added burden of guilt. In the end, I had to settle the matter in the only way that really works: facing my fears, discussing them with others, and turning the resentment over to the Higher Power. This method worked well that time, but I’ve had to deal with fear-induced resentments time and time again.
One of the most common errors in AA is to deny that one is feeling resentment at all. As my friend said, “I don’t resent him! I just feel sorry for anybody who’s so damned stupid, that’s all!” Like other flights in self-deception, this is as futile as drinking muscatel and calling it grape pop. No matter what you call it, resentment is a feeling of indignation and hostility. Most of us, when we’re angry, don’t really have the capacity to feel genuine pity for anybody, much less for a person who has crossed us. In some cases, resentment is misidentified as pity or concern, but the disguise usually doesn’t fool anybody. I have tried to use this device now and then, and I later had to admit that the sound thinkers in AA never really bought it.
Incidentally, the device of “feeling sorry” for another person can be a way of putting him down. (This individual is so misguided that we need to pity him!) I’ve even heard some people voice a resentment by saying, “I’m praying for you.” In effect, what is being said here is: “I’m praying that you will come to your senses and change your views to correspond to mine!”
Hunger for Justice
“Justice” and “justification” also seem to work together in producing and prolonging resentments. True justice appears to be in short supply in our troubled world, and this sorry condition has made the search for justice a big business indeed. It would be difficult to list all the organizations and groups whose announced aim is true justice for themselves and others, and almost everybody has strong feelings on the subject. Many times, I have been caught up in the demand for justice as a result of reading a book or watching a movie or listening to a very persuasive person. Justice certainly seems to be on the side of the angels. And for that matter, who would want to live in a world that completely lacked any concern for justice?
But justice can be a very tricky cause, because few people really agree as to whether something is just or unjust. Meanwhile, some advocates of justice are so sure of their cause that they deeply resent anybody who disagrees with them. I have played in that league, and I know from personal experience that a powerful desire for justice breeds both impatience and arrogance, to say nothing of self-righteousness. Once we are deeply aroused by a just cause, it is easy to feel deep hostility and contempt toward anybody who disagrees with us or will not aid us in our work. Now and then, a self-proclaimed seeker of justice becomes so carried away by his feelings of rage that he acts unjustly!
The lesson here is to remember that a good cause does not excuse bad feelings and wrong actions. The person who has worked himself into a condition of rage in the cause of justice is not given a license indemnifying him against the consequences of his thoughts and actions. Again, it’s a first-drink thing–something that never is justified under any circumstances.
Overcoming ‘Justified’ Resentment
Many people are unwilling or unable to admit that resentments are the major difficulty in their lives. There are others who will make such an admission, but still have trouble dealing with their resentments. A great deal of pride and fear blocks the path for most of us. We may even feel that a capacity for indignation is an important part of us, and that we are being somehow dehumanized if we attempt to abandon all resentment.
Fortunately, this is not the case. We must never think that we have to give up our ability to feel strongly about certain things, even though we are putting aside resentment. There are probably many people who appear to be free of resentment, but are actually only indifferent and apathetic, lacking strong feelings of any kind. To the emotional, high-strung alcoholic, this kind of person is a vegetable or a robot, and who wants to be either? So what we are looking for is an attitude that will dissolve the cancerous cells of resentment while retaining and strengthening the good, vital tissues of our feeling nature.
The AA program and its implied way of life are a godsend to the person who suffers from “justified” resentments and wants to be relieved of this difficulty. AA does not say that a person must give up cherished causes and deep feelings in order to stay sober. It does imply, however, that an orderly approach to human problems is both necessary and effective. We have to set priorities in our lives, and after we’ve done that, the proper attitudes and actions will become clear to us. The Slogan that covers this is the very simple First Things First.
What things should come first? For the recovering alcoholic, the primary thing is always continuous sobriety, under any and all conditions. But after that? The next objective, closely related to the first, should be happy sobriety–that is, not only sobriety, but also mental well-being, serenity, confidence, high self-esteem, and gratitude. The alcoholic who possesses both continuous and happy sobriety can then set up other priorities as they come, always rejecting any idea, attitude, or practice that threatens the two fundamental objectives.
Now and then, some individuals feel that they are being self-centered and selfish in wanting happy sobriety. They are saying, in effect, “Why should I be happy when there’s so much suffering in the world?” This is erroneous reasoning. We can’t really help others effectively when we are terribly disturbed ourselves much of the time. Beyond that, no person who has truly found happy sobriety is selfish in the bad sense of that term.
What does all this have to do with “justified” resentments? A great deal, since it is usually resentment of any kind that directly robs us of happy sobriety. If we make happy sobriety a goal, setting it only a notch or two under continuous sobriety in our scale of needs, we will not be deceived by “justified” resentments appearing in any form or guise.
‘Resist Not Evil’
Not everybody will approve of us when we adopt this new stance. People who are constantly embroiled in various causes may even denounce us as being smug and irresponsible. People who tend to react violently to offenses may feel that we are being spineless. Why sit still and take abuse or put up with something when you don’t have to?
I am not suggesting that there are not proper times for action. A chief difficulty of resentful people, however, is that their actions usually intensify resentment and often do not solve the problems at issue. There are better ways of solving human problems if we will look for them.
One of the best examples of a better way occurred some years ago, when the AA Fellowship was attacked in an article appearing in a national magazine. I spotted the article while browsing in our local library, and I can still remember the anger and indignation that the article aroused in me. The attack not only seemed gratuitous, but also contained, in my opinion, several errors. Like many AA members, I sent off a hot letter to the magazine. I was certainly resentful, but if ever a resentment was justified, here it was! Why shouldn’t I have resented an attack on the beloved Fellowship that had saved my life and the lives of thousands of friends and still had so much good to do in the world? I was damned mad, and so were many of my AA friends.
Although I should have known better, I really did expect AA to make some kind of official reply to this attack. No direct reply ever was made. AA did respond, however, and this response, when it came, was far better for the Fellowship than an angry, retaliatory sort of reply ever could have been.
The first response took the form of an article by Bill W. in the April 1963 Grapevine. After mentioning that a national magazine had published an article critical toward AA, Bill reviewed AA guidelines that had been developed years before. The point was that “our critics can be our benefactors.” If a person publishes material that is critical but true (the guidelines said), we should accept this criticism gracefully and make appropriate changes in our own behavior and attitudes. If the criticisms are untrue, all the more reason that we should remain silent. In any case, nothing is to be gained by replying in kind or by adopting the tactics of the critic.
The second response was that AA took its collective inventory during the next two years and, in 1965, adopted the well-known Responsibility Declaration [see page 40 in this issue] to remind our membership of AA’s primary purpose. Several other critical articles about AA were published, but the attacks soon died down. Meanwhile, AA continued to grow in the following years and still enjoys the respect and the support of the general public. The critical articles did not really harm us and may indeed have helped us review our own values. I am amused and also somewhat embarrassed when I recall how resentful I felt upon reading the first critical article. My resentment was a waste of time and energy. AA’s Bill W. showed us a better way, which was actually based on the Biblical injunction “Resist not evil.”
God Is Just
In the long run, our success in coping with the “justified” resentment will be guaranteed if we remind ourselves that God is just and that there is perfect balance in the universe and in our affairs. When I was alone in the bitter world of drinking, I often lashed out at injustice and even used it as proof that there could be no God who was both all-powerful and all-loving. I now realize that I was incapable of understanding true justice. Despite many years of good AA training, I still do not understand true justice and would be incapable of dispensing it even if I was given authority over other people’s lives. What I see as “justice” or “fairness” is really only a limited, human concept; another person may see the entire matter in a different light. Indeed, both of us could use the term “justice” and actually be speaking of things that are directly opposed to each other.
In view of that problem, I should not spend too much time building any so-called justification for my resentment. If life and the universe are perfectly balanced, and if we are moving in an upward direction, all things will be set right. I have been my own worst enemy most of my life, and I have often injured myself seriously as a result of a “justified” resentment over a slight wrong. There are many causes for resentment in the world, all of them providing “justification.” We could not begin to settle all of the world’s grievances or even to arrange matters so as to please everybody. If we have been treated unjustly by others or simply by life itself, we can avoid compounding the difficulty if we completely forgive the persons involved and abandon the destructive practice of reviewing our hurts and humiliations.
It has long since been proved that resentment and rage are killers. No alcoholic who values peace of mind and sobriety can afford to keep company with them. Are there times when I dare make an exception, when the enormity of the offense justifies my resentment? In my opinion, the answer is always “No”–unless there are also times when I could justify taking a first drink.