I suppose there are ways in which the question is simply rehashing history, like thumbing through a file cabinet of folders labeled such things as retired high school teacher, mother of three sons, grandmother to three, most recently, a four-going-on-five year old girl. Possibly I can label myself a meditator if I keep sitting still. It’s an admirable identity, but right now more wishful than accurate. I am a Unitarian Universalist at 1187 Franklin in San Francisco. And oh, look, I see I am a person who is carrying a grudge.
I don’t like to be limited by identity labels; I want them to peel off easily. Perhaps not the ones like I had sons when I was young, and some of them had kids. Or the fact that I did hold a job in the Los Angeles Unified School District (I have former students as friends on Facebook to prove that I was there).
But grudge-holder is not a label I like. Not that I don’t think I’m entitled to my ire. Yet it’s my hope that this label, with a little work, can be peeled away. Why would I be attached to a feeling that causes suffering and can’t be doing anyone else any good?
Truth be told, holding this grudge borders on pleasure. There’s a reassuring sense of self involved in revisiting hurt feelings, as if this particular core wound of mine requires an occasional prodding to remind me of who I think I am.
At the heart is self-esteem. I have it, but it appears to be attached to getting plenty of positive feedback, and when someone doesn’t respect who I think I am, my feelings get hurt. Continuing to hold a grudge reminds me that I value myself and that someone in my orbit doesn’t know who I think I am.
This wanting to have worth recognized seems important enough to apply to all beings. As I move among others, I want to validate for them their worth. I want to take the time, be present, so as to discover how and where they are holding their worth. And, above all, I want them to know that I recognize their value. It takes some care to even partially discover the multifaceted reality that is a human being. And I hold a grudge because a person who should know better (my label) didn’t have the perspicacity to discover the me whom they labeled “Doesn’t matter.”
Okay, so compassion is an option. I could wear this identity label more lightly and be willing to loosen it so as to avoid a lot of insecurity, fear, and suffering. Yes, letting go. That’s a wise practice.
Martha Beck in a CNN blog posted April 25, 2008 gives good advice on how to let go. She says, “Be still. The process of releasing your labels without losing yourself begins in stillness. If we hold still long enough, we begin to feel what we really feel and to know what we really know - a prospect so terrifying that some people bolt rather than face it. If you can do this - get used to sitting still until you feel what you feel and know what you know - your labels will start peeling away like onion skins.”
What makes it difficult for me to peel away the grudge label is, as I said, the discomfort of forfeiting a reassuringly familiar sense of self, a core identity as a person hungry for approval. Doesn’t make me proud, but I am used to being that person. An even bigger question then becomes who do I think I am if I am not the person I always thought I was.
But Beck promises a pretty big pay off: “Eventually, you will begin to sense a very deep self that defies all labels, a calm soul who has experienced your whole life. . .without ever being dominated or extinguished. This is the you who wears your labels, who can toss the ones you've outgrown [or that never fit in the first place], who will always find another identity to wear when a familiar one disappears.”
Learning to peel away my labels is on-going. “You are what you learn” is Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ answer to the Who Are You question. And that, to my mind means paying attention to the lessons life presents.
He says there's almost nothing you can't learn your way out of. I read that as an opportunity; if I don't like who I am, I have the option of learning to hold my identity more loosely and with greater compassion. “Life is like a jail with an unlocked, heavy door. You're free the minute you realize the door will open if you simply lean into it,” he says.
Meanwhile there’s a grudge waiting, a heavy door to be pushed open, a label to be loosened.