By Theodore Dalrymple, published on March 1, 1995 - last reviewed on May 15, 2015
It's Futile. It's Destructive. It's Blinding. But this universal emotiondoes have its rewards. It assures us of our own impotence. And it allows us to hang on to our image of ourselves as fundamentally good-whatever our actual behavior. By Theodore Dalrymple.
Of all the futile and destructive emotions to which human beings are prey, perhaps the most universal is resentment. Surely there can be few people who have not wasted many hours or even years of their life dwelling on the wrongs supposedly done to them. In my experience, people generally spend rather less time dwelling on the wrongs they have done to others.
Since we live in a world of perpetual injustice, everyone supposes he or she has real cause to feel resentful. But the resentment we feel is by no means proportional to its alleged cause.
Even people who, by all standards, have led extremely privileged lives full of opportunity manage somehow to resent, often very forcefully. They compare their lives not with those hundreds of millions of people less fortunate than themselves, but with an impossible ideal or with the very few who are even better off than they. No one, after all, is so fortunate that he or she does not know of someone even more fortunate.
By contrast, people who have experienced horrifying treatment during civil war or other calamities are often singularly free of resentment. This is further proof, if any were needed, that this most destructive of emotions is more dependent upon inner need than upon outer circumstances.
Considering the importance of resentment in our lives, and the damage it does, it receives scant attention from psychiatrists and psychologists. Resentment is a great rationalizer: it presents us with selected versions of our own past, so that we do not recognize our own mistakes and avoid the necessity to make painful choices.
Personal resentment has played an important part in recent history. Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin lived and breathed it. Men who become dictators never forget the trivial slights experienced in their youth and avenge themselves upon their former tormentors when they achieved power. One of the first of the hundreds of thousands of deaths for which the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu was responsible was that of the man who had refused him a scholarship to the United States. The dictator of Equatorial Guinea, Macias Nguema, who killed or drove into exile a third of his tiny country's population, was so uncertain of his own educational accomplishments that he took anyone who wore glasses or possessed a page of printed matter as an intellectual and had him killed. These examples could, alas, be multiplied many times.
I recently attended a rally in Naples addressed by Mussolini's granddaughter, Allesandra. There were only about 500 people, but even this small number managed to raise a frighteningly deep-throated chant of "Duce! Duce! Duce!" (to the accompaniment of the fascist salute) in the courtyard of the castle in which the rally took place.
La Mussolini, who is glamorous in an overblown way, was clearly bored by the whole proceedings, except when it was her turn to speak. To an observer, it was transparently obvious that she cared as much for her supporters, and in approximately the same way, as a poultry farmer for his chickens. Any promise she made them was self-evidently false and worthless. As I looked around me, at the faces contorted by a hatred expressed in unison, I was surprised by how many of these latter-day Fascisti were lame (like Goebbels) or otherwise impaired, small and mean men who were searching for an enemy whom they could blame for their dissatisfaction.
Most resentment, however, does not result in political action and remains fixed at a purely personal level. Among my patients, it is clear that this emotion fulfills an important function: to disguise from themselves the extent to which their own decisions and conduct have been responsible for their unhappiness. People prefer the role of immaculate victim of circumstance to that of principal author of their own misery.
Parents are perhaps the most common object of resentment, the people who are most frequently blamed for all our failings and failures alike. How many times have I heard a patient recite a litany of complaint about his mother or his father, about how one or the other of them, or both, destroyed his self-respect, or prevented him from achieving anything worthwhile by undermining his confidence! (In my youth, I too played this game.) I can scarcely recall a single patient, though, who made any allowance whatsoever for the upbringing his parents received in their turn. Original sin was committed not by Adam and Eve, but by our own parents, who sprang into the world fully formed. Their faults, unlike ours, derive from a pure ill-will, rather than a faulty childhood.
There is a kind of sour pleasure or even a bitter happiness in such resentment, whatever the object it happens to attach itself to. With many people it becomes almost a vocation or a way of life. They revolve the injustices from which they believe they have suffered around in their heads almost like a mantra. They find the repetition reassuring: for something that is untrue attains an aura of truth if it is repeated often enough.
So what exactly are the rewards of resentment. It is always a relief to know that the reason we have failed in life is not because we lack the talent, energy, or determination to succeed, but because of a factor that is beyond our control and that has loaded the dice decisively against us. Likewise with moral failings. Blame does not attach to us, therefore, and we are able to preserve our image of ourselves as essentially and fundamentally good, whatever our actual behavior. Any good that we do is a true reflection of our character; any ill a reflection of our upbringing.
To be the victim of injustice allows us to despise others while others despise us. They may look down upon us for our failure, but to be a failure in an unjust world is surely no failing. On the contrary, it is a sign of moral superiority. For to be a success in such a world requires a degree of insensitivity and indifference to the fate of others: in short, a kind of sociopathy.
Moreover, if the world is unjustly stacked against us, any effort on our part to improve our situation is futile. This is upsetting in a way, but at least it absolves us from the painful necessity to change. It insulates us from the possibility of a failure that we must unequivocally ascribe to ourselves. We can remain exactly the same while calling down anathema on a cruel world. And such denunciation has always been highly enjoyable.
There is one further advantage of believing oneself to be the victim of circumstance. Our supposed victimhood assures us of our own importance. In this century of horrors, of the First World War and the Armenian massacre, of the Stalinist terror and the Holocaust, of the Great Leap Forward and the Khmer Rouge (to name but a few), it somehow seems insensitive not to have participated in the suffering. To admit that our life has been one of comfort and ease is to lay us open to the charge of triviality and complacency.
It is often supposed that only victims have something really important to say to a world in which Auschwitz could happen. Since we all believe that we have something important to say, it follows that we must be victims. Hence our need to magnify the wrongs done to us, and to make them appear insurmountable.
Time and time again in clinical practice I encounter a refusal by the patient to do anything about the situation complained of, a situation that he or she ascribes to the malevolence of others. Any suggestion, practical or therapeutic, is met at once with a torrent of objections and an attitude almost of fear. For if the situation were to improve as a re-suit of the patient's own efforts, his or her past assumption of pure victimhood would have been shown to be false and self-serving. And to give up a whole philosophy of life is never easy, especially if it entails the realization that years of one's life have been wasted.
Indeed, it may on occasion be cruel to take away people's illusion that they have been badly treated and that such treatment is the root cause of their unhappiness and failure. For if resentment lasts long enough, the possibility of change really is destroyed and no longer exists. Since one can offer nothing better in exchange, it is sometimes kinder to leave the patient with his or her bitter illusions intact.
Criminals are great resenters. Their skins are paper-thin where any harm done to them is concerned, but elephant-thick when it is a question of the harm they have done to others. Explaining their actions--snatching a purse from a passerby, breaking into someone's house, even stabbing someone to death--they at once resort to tales of wretched childhood, of violent and neglectful parents, and so forth. Whether this is post-facto rationalization of their actions, or the true motive lying behind them, is beside the point; their resentment is an obstacle to change. And when I ask them "What is the actual connection between your hated father and the person you robbed?" I am trying to start the process of illusion stripping.
For resentment is not only blind but blinding.