Periodically, it’s good to slow things down, step back from our regular rhythm of life, put on our spiritual lenses, and examine what’s driving and inspiring us as persons and as a culture.
As we debate immigration policy, abortion laws, tax reform, healthcare coverage, and other issues relating to our life together, we should ask: Who are we trying to be? Why? What’s motivating us to pursue this way of life?
These questions lead us to assess our values and worldview. Christian believers are called to accept a vision that is self-described as the “most excellent way of love.” The way is summarized by Saint Paul, who taught that love is patient and kind. It is not envious, boastful, proud, self-seeking, and does not dishonor others. The apostle continues by explaining that love is not easily angered and does not keep a record of wrongs. It does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres. Love never fails.
This beautiful way of love, however, is not only for Christian believers. It’s argued that people of good will, moved by both a moral sense flowing from our human conscience as well as a moral law that is written on our shared human nature, are also summoned to this noble way of life. Societies in human history, including pluralistic ones, that have been civil and civilizing have always accepted and sought to live by this way of love.
Such a human vocation to love is a tall order. Not only are we all fallen and unable to completely live up to such demands of the heart but we are also complicated creatures that can be comfortable in duplicity, denial, and other forms of interior darkness.
In this context, we realize that values we accept and that relate to a way of love can easily be manipulated. In particular, they can be perverted by resentment, and such a displaced impetus is not the soil for true virtue or authentic love.
While unveiled by many modern philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, the concept of resentment was most fully dissected by the Catholic philosopher, Max Scheler. The German thinker defined resentment as “a self-poisoning of the mind” that is “a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such, are normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments. The emotions and affects primarily concerned are revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.”
In summary, Scheler is exposing the human experience of resentment. It goes something like this: A person recognizes a true value and is being called to internally assent. For example, “I should help my neighbor who is in need.” The call, however, is denied and repressed, or is done but without true love: “I’m not going to help. I’m too busy and I don’t like that person,” or, “I don’t like that I had to help that person.”
The call or the consequences, however, do not simply fly away. They actually deepen and fester within the person’s conscience and psyche: “I should have been more kind,” or “I can’t believe I was pressed into helping.” Rather than acknowledging his selfishness, the person feeds resentment: “My neighbor should be able to take care of himself. Why is he asking me for help?”
Resentment grows as it’s nurtured. Eventually, the person can have resentment toward other members of our society who are kind and charitable. When resentment moves in this direction, it takes on the illusion of virtue: “She shouldn’t be helping him. He needs to take care of himself. Why are they so happy? How will that person ever get on their feet with all this hand-holding?”
Scheler writes that resentment “is filled with envy, the impulse to detract, malice, and secret vindictiveness. These affects have become fixed attitudes, detached from all determinate objects. Independently of his will, this man’s attention will be instinctively drawn by all events which can set these affects in motion. The resentful attitude even plays a role in the formation of perceptions, expectations, and memories. It automatically selects those aspects of experience which can justify the factual application of this pattern of feeling.”
Again, the philosopher dives into the human heart. He shows how resentment expands and corrodes the human soul. (That may be one reason Scheler has had such an influence in Catholic circles, including St. Pope John Paul II.) Scheler shows how the person of resentment becomes miserable, and wants others to be in misery.
The real danger with resentment, however, is that it disguises itself so well in the perception of virtue and good will. And so, we can only find resentment in ourselves through sincere repentance and active prayer. As a society, we can only discover resentment in others – or in our society as a whole – by dialogue and in the discernment of actions. It is by listening to the reasons why someone thinks something or what inspired them to act that we can honestly detect resentment and call it to authentic love.
The disaster caused by resentment cannot be emphasized enough. It implodes the heart, turns marriages into battlefields, rips families apart, makes workplaces arenas of passive aggression, and allows societies to dismiss the sick, the unborn, the migrant, and others in need. And so, in navigating the issues and concerns of our day, we have to be aware of resentment and keep it at bay so that real love and true openness are the mark of who we are, what we’re fighting for, and why it’s good.