A sentenced prisoner wrote to an advice columnist lamenting that he was “on a one-way trip down a road that leads nowhere”. The man signed his name “Inmate on a Dead End”. A few weeks later another reader responded: “I want ‘Inmate’ to know that one is never beyond hope. Prison may be the best thing that ever happened to him—it was for my husband.” She signed off as “Proud Wife in New Jersey”.
That proud wife explained her husband is “living proof that you don’t have to be stuck in a dead end”. As an 18-year-old he made some unfortunate decisions; got mixed up with drugs and the wrong group. As a result he was tried on 15 counts of armed robbery, convicted on two and sentenced to 15 years prison. He too gave up hope of ever having a happy life. Two years into his sentence, the man realised that self-pity and hopelessness were not helpful. He quit drugs and began taking classes offered at the prison. After six years of model behaviour he was released on parole. That was when his future wife met him. “After getting to know this man and finding out who he once was, compared to who he has become in the past 10 years, I cannot say enough about how proud I am of him. In the four years since his release, he has ended his parole and is completing his college degree. We have gotten married and just purchased our first home. These are accomplishments he never believed possible when he was first locked up.”
The lesson from that inmate’s transformation is a basic one: he chose not to indulge in the emotional poison of bitterness about himself, his life, his circumstances.
Whenever we make costly errors, or become the object of gossip or betrayal, we must be careful not to become bitter. Bitter people are at war with the world because they are convinced that life is cheating them. Their negativity only intensifies their hostility and anger. It’s a vicious circle that only leads to more failure and broken relationships.
“It all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves,” noted legendary psychologist Carl Jung. Likewise, John Milton wrote in his epic 1667 poem, Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” In other words, a healthy attitude leads to a healthier outcome. For that reason, the Bible commands us: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words . . . as well as all types of malicious behaviour.” (Ephesians 4:31, NLT*). Here are some ways to beat bitterness.
Recognise and respond to helpers
Even if those closest to you have abandoned you, understand that there are others who will come into your life bringing gifts of hope and help. Recognise and respond to helpers when they appear. Consider the life of Patricia Cornwell, the best-selling author of medical thrillers such as The Last Precinct. She grew up in the tiny town of Montreat, North Carolina. She painfully recalls the Christmas of her ninth year. Her mother, a single parent, was struggling to take care of Patricia and her two brothers. As Christmas approached, there was no family money for gifts or food or heating oil. In complete despair, the mother walked her three children to the place where Ruth and Billy Graham lived. The mother did not know the Grahams personally, but she was aware of Billy Graham’s growing reputation as a Christian evangelist. Patricia’s mother handed Ruth a note saying she was giving the three children to the Grahams. Within hours, the mother was checked into a hospital where she remained for several months, struggling to recover her mental health.
Ruth Graham greeted the children warmly and fed them a meal of spaghetti. Of course, she could not keep the children and they were placed into a foster home. As Patricia continued to live and grow up in Montreat, she would see Ruth Graham from time to time “but it wasn’t until I was 19 and had dropped out of college that she and I became friends. At the time, I had a severe eating disorder, was depressed and believed I was utterly worthless,” Cornwell explains. Gently Ruth Graham “began to bring me back to life by making me feel I must be special . . . she encouraged my writing and told me I was talented. When I returned to college, she visited me, sent money and wrote to me. If any single person in this world made a difference in my life she did.” The lesson: Cornwall recognised and responded to a helper sent her way. Her life and story could have turned out completely differently had she chosen to ignore Ruth Graham’s overtures.
Seek strength in faith
No matter how great the crisis, no matter what has come crashing into your life, remember that God will never abandon you. The Bible says: “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you” (Deuteronomy 31:8). Tap into your faith and trust in God to protect and preserve you. Focus upon encourag-ing, faith building, bitterness-destroying Bible verses such as these:
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus”
“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8–9).
Respond proactively to a crisis
You don’t have to be a passive victim. Be proactive when life knocks you down; you can become instrumental in creating another opportunity. Consider the lesson learned by martial arts screen icon Chuck Norris. When he was young, his family moved to southern California from the small prairie town of Wilson, Oklahoma, whereupon the father abandoned his family. They lived off government aid until Norris’ mum landed at job at an aeronautics factory where she worked from 3pm until midnight. “With no money for babysitters, I rushed home from school every day to care for my two younger brothers,” Norris recalls.
At 16 he found a job packing groceries in Gardena, a Los Angeles suburb. “I thought everything was fine until the end of the first day, when the manager told me not to return. I wasn’t sacking fast enough,” Norris explains. A painfully shy youth, he surprised even himself when he blurted out, “Let me come back tomorrow and try one more time. I know I’ll do better.” The manager relented and Norris redoubled his efforts the next day, proving he was capable. “That moment when I spoke up is burned in my memory,” Norris says, “and so is the lesson: If you want to accomplish anything in life, you can’t just sit back and hope it will happen. You’ve got to make it happen.”
Take an honest look at yourself
Similarly to the Alcoholics Anonymous challenge, “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory,” ask yourself some hard questions:
- What actions did I take or fail to take that contributed to my dilemma?
- Am I guilty of blaming others for something that was my fault?
- What can I learn from this experience?
- What steps can I now take to emerge better, not bitter from this?
- Did I respond appropriately to criticism and warnings?
- Can I ask others for feedback and will I listen to their words carefully?
- What spiritual lessons can I learn from this experience?
Taking an honest look at yourself opens the way for you to let go of the past and move forward into the future.
Extend compassion toward those who have hurt you
The pain of betrayal or abandonment by a friend or family member cuts deep. It’s easy to dislike or even hate the person who has wounded us. Yet, beating bitterness means forgiving and extending compassion towards these people.
Here’s a simple mental exercise that can free us to do this:
- First, bring to your mind the image of a person you love very much and who loves you back. Think how you wish only the best for that person—good health, contentment and freedom from suffering;
- Second, hold in your mind the image of a person you have neutral feelings for. Extend the same feelings of love, warmth and compassion toward them for a few moments; and
- Third, picture in your mind the person who has hurt you. Expand your feelings of warmth and compassion to include that individual. Try to think of that person the same way you do about the person you love.
Finally, to beat bitterness, reprogram your thinking. Change your thoughts and your words concerning your situation. Rather than saying, This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me, try saying it this way: This is painful, stressful and difficult, but I am confident that I will overcome and be better for the experience. Changing your thoughts and words will prevent you from becoming paralysed by the situation.
Don’t give in to bitterness. There’s a better way.
* Bible quotes in this article are used with permission from the New Living Translation, © 2015 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc.