The Working Catholic
by William Droel
Following each presidential election, a cottage industry of analysis appears—maps, tables, articles and books. This time around the industry is mansion-sized; it is huge, I tell you. Resentment is mentioned as a factor in some election commentaries. (Though written before the election, The Politics of Resentment by Jeremy Engels is particularly insightful.)
Resentment is unrefined reaction to loss. Let’s face it, things are dying—slowly or maybe quickly. Perhaps it is a fading dream parents have for their children; that their young adults will get a college degree and enjoy a professional career. Perhaps it is a lowered opinion one has for the neighborhood; the past was great, but not now. Perhaps it is the seemingly random illness afflicting one’s spouse. Perhaps it is even awareness of one’s own mortality.
When the grief that comes from such inevitable losses is left unprocessed, the door to resentment opens. Resentment, by the way, is new to the modern age. People have always bemoaned their situation and have long suspected that the rich or the good looking did something bad to have it better off. That is called jealously and envy. But resentment admires up and blames down.
Resentful thinking usually concludes that wealthy families worked hard, just as did those who mined natural resources, toiled in a factory, labored on a farm or tended to a town’s needs in an honest small business. Hard work is a common phrase in resentful thinking. And, according to the original dream, hard work yields success. And when it doesn’t, resentful thinking looks around (but generally does not look up) for a flaw. Resentment blames down. There is, this thinking continues, a group just below people like us that gets ahead undeservedly and even gets ahead at our expense. Left alone, resentment settles into low burn anger, a murky fear, a dragging suspicion. Every now and then it finds expression in the corner bar or at a family gathering. But left alone, resentment is incapable of building an organizational alternative to what feels wrong.
Resentment is like an addiction, explains Fr. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996). It is not an effective posture; it only pulls down. “Resentment is the paralyzed complaint,” he writes. It is parasitical because its anger is directed scattershot at institutions (the government, the media, the environmental movement, the church) “on which you have made yourself totally dependent without being able to do anything about it.”
Of course, local and national figures can play on a group’s resentment by promising a vague alternative to the status quo. However, no lasting reform policy or improved organization comes from the promise, only more alienation. When resentment gels around a public figure, it becomes more strident, righteous and pessimistic. It accomplishes the opposite of what it intends.
Resentment is not the only possible reaction to loss. The alternative is processed grief, creative forbearance and strategic anger or cold anger. It is a deliberate process of naming the loss and doing something good in order to give meaning to the seemingly senseless. It is, as young adults now say, paying it forward. This alternative, perhaps surprisingly, presupposes resentment’s opposite: gratitude. Dealing positively with loss is based on the belief that the world is an undeserved blessing. Gratitude comes from a confident belief that our common life makes sense, no matter how things turn out.
Gratitude, in this context, is not merely the child’s good habit of thanking people for kindnesses. It is not simply politeness. This is a public gratitude. It is a lifestyle, or better yet a culture, patterned on gift exchange or reciprocity. And although cynics do not see it, there is already a gratitude economy and gratitude politics weaving in and out and around our global capital economy. To be continued…
Droel edits a printed newsletter about faith and work: INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)