Soren Kierkegaard once defined resentment in this way. Resentment, he suggested, happens when we move from the happy feeling of admiration to the unhappy feeling of jealousy. And this, sadly, happens all too frequently in our lives and we are dangerously blind to its occurrence. Me resentful? How dare you make that accusation!
Yet it’s hard to deny that resentment and its concomitant unhappiness color our world. At every level of life, from what we see playing out in the grievances and wars among nations to what we see playing out in the bickering in our board rooms, class rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms, there is evidence of resentment and bitterness. Our world is full of resentment. Everyone, it seems, is bitter about something, and, of course, not without cause. Few are the persons who do not secretly nurse the feeling that they have been ignored, wounded, cheated, treated unfairly, and have drawn too many short straws in life; and so many of us feel that we have every right to protest our right to be resentful and unhappy. We’re not happy, but with good reason.
Yes, there’s always good reason to be resentful; but, and this is the point of this column, according to a number of insightful analysts, both old and new, we are rarely in touch with the real reason why we are so spontaneously bitter. For persons such as Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard, Robert Moore, Gil Bailie, Robert Bly, and Richard Rohr, among others, the deep root of our resentment and unhappiness lies in our inability to admire, our inability to praise others, and our inability to give others and the world a simple gaze of admiration.
We’re a society that, for the most part, can’t admire. Admiration is, for us, a lost virtue. Indeed in the many circles today, both in the world and in the churches, admiration is seen as something juvenile and immature, the frenzied, mindless shrieking of teenage girls chasing a rock star. Maturity and sophistication are identified today with the kind of intelligence, wit, and reticence, which don’t easily admire, which don’t easily compliment. Learning and maturity, we believe, need to be picking things apart, suspicious of others’ virtues, distrustful of their motives, on hyper-alert for hypocrisy, and articulating every reason not to admire. Such is the view today.
But what we don’t admit in this view of maturity and learning is how we feel threatened by those whose graces or virtues exceed our own. What we don’t admit is our own jealousy. What we don’t admit is our own resentment. What we don’t admit, and never will admit, is how our need to cut down someone else is an infallible sign of our own jealousy and bad self-image. And what helps us in our denial is this: Cynicism and cold judgment make for a perfect camouflage; we don’t need to admire because we’re bright enough to see that there’s nothing really to admire.
That, too often, is our sophisticated, unhappy state: We can no longer truly admire anybody. We can no longer truly praise anybody. We can no longer look at the world with any praise or admiration. Rather our gaze is perennially soured by resentment, cynicism, judgment, and jealousy.
We can test ourselves on this: Robert Moore often challenges his audiences to ask themselves this question: When was the last time you walked across a room and told a person, especially a younger person or a person whose talents dwarf yours, that you admire her, that you admire what she’s doing, that her gifts enrich your life, and that you are happy that her path has crossed yours? When was the last time you gave someone a heartfelt compliment? Or, to reverse the question: When was the last time that someone, especially someone who is threatened by your talents, gave you a sincere compliment?
We don’t compliment each other easily, or often, and this betrays a secret jealousy. It also reveals a genuine moral flaw in our lives. Thomas Aquinas one submitted that to withhold a compliment from someone who deserves it is a sin because we are withholding from him or her some of the food that he or she needs to live. To not admire, to not praise, to not compliment, is not a sign of sophistication but a sign moral immaturity and personal insecurity. It is also one of the deeper reasons why we so often fill with bitter feelings of resentment and unhappiness.
Why do we so often feel bitter and resentful? We fill with resentment for many reasons, though, not least, because we have lost the virtues of admiration and praise.