How can I swallow the bitter pills of life?

Bitter pills of lifePeople who moan about the bitter pills of life can get you down.

For instance I don’t like Lawrence. He is the sort of individual who you may also know. Someone who comes across as a bit of a moaner and much to my embarrassment is not slow to criticise even his own children behind their backs. He once said, “I’ll always be disappointed”. Yes, he feels hard done by about the bitter pills of life.

How different from his sister Janet who is a delight to be around — sweet-natured and full of fun. Talk about chalk and cheese.

When they were youngsters their parents’ fortunes changed and the family was obliged to move home from quite a nice town to a poor area many miles away. They both lost everything they had known — familiar haunts, places where they were known, and long-standing friends and instead ended up in a derelict neighbourhood, with locations they was unaccustomed to. Lawrence was obliged to attend a rough boys school where he was picked on as different and he never settled. He ended up in a low paid dead end job. He would never have admitted it but his negative attitude of mind is reflected in this quote:

“Ugliness turned me inside out. There was a certain satisfaction in bitterness. I courted it. It was standing outside, and I invited it in.” (Nicole Krauss, The History of Love)

Later, he was faced with the bitter pills of life including having to depend financially on his wife — who earned more than him. His frustration of failure on which he blamed a disrupted education stayed with him and the marriage eventually ended when she decided she had had enough of his embittered resentment.

His sister, Janet was a different kettle of fish. She had accepted her unpleasant situation and tried to make the best of it. She worked hard and got by okay.  Not that she had an easier ride. Desperate to get away from socially disadvantaged circumstances she left home early but found loneliness and vulnerability in the big city. But she battled on. To my mind she is living proof that it is not events that harm us but the way we respond to them. She swallowed the bitter pills of life and got on with it. This viewpoint is well expressed by Martin Luther King.

“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”

And so life wasn’t easy for Janet. But she didn’t become corrosively scornful like Lawrence, despite her having one or two personal crises when going through difficult times of anxiety and loss. Like with her brother, her personal path in life was a rocky road. But unlike his storing up of anger, hurt and disillusionment with each new disappointment, she learned from her mistakes and tried again so that at each time of trouble she responded by moving on rather than staying stuck. She never became self-focused in her thinking but was always ready to empathise with the feelings of those around her never giving in to resentment and self-pity.

 “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” (Nelson Mandela)

How can you find forgiveness to replace resentment? How might you swallow the bitter pills of life without becoming embittered?

The best answer I have found is a spiritual one. I have tried to deal with part of the answer in my post How to feel less resentment.  In his book Personal Revelation, Michael Stanley offers us the view that bitter experience is often a crucial part of spiritual growth. This despite the fact that usually we read about spiritual illumination as an uplifting experience; a common view being that there is an initial sweetness of an elevated state of mind as you experience new-found hope of personal healing and meaning.

However, Stanley suggests that inner awareness can also stir up some vaguely disturbing inner feelings. He gives as a reason the way you start to see yourself in the light of a deeper ethos; more clearly recognising some previously out-of-sight individual failings. Janet was ready to admit some unflattering truths about herself — her fear of being let down, and her tendency to put off doing things. But she was prepared to look honestly at herself. She found that when getting deeper into the nitty-gritty of self-examination, things can get a bit upsetting.

In other words, the book is suggesting the deciding factor is when you realise the need to forgo complacent self-satisfaction in your good outward actions in favour of a humbler alertness to the true nature of your inner life. This is the bitter experience of appreciating to what extent your inward self-centred justifications and manoeuvrings have been actually distorting the new higher ideas and principles.

The book Heart, Head & Hands is an interpretation of Emanuel Swedenborg’s spiritual philosophy. The secret is learning how to rely on your spiritual source rather than continuing with the mistaken notion that you can live in isolation from the force and energy of love and light that created your life. According to this view you need to give up the illusion that you have the ability, of yourself, apart from this higher divine power, to become wise and do good.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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