By Kevin DeYoung
Theodore Dalrymple is not a Christian. I don’t find much in his writing that demonstrates an understanding of redemption. But I do find a lot that shows a keen understanding of sin.
The Bible uses the word “bitterness.” Others refer to it as “holding a grudge.” Some label it “baggage,” or even more laconically, “issues.” Dalrymple calls it resentment.
For him, this means blaming his parents: “When I review my failings and incompetence, of a kind that I am too ashamed or embarrassed to admit in public, but which life itself often forced me to do, I explain them by reference to my childhood–parental neglect, for example” (Anything Goes, 209). For others, it means blaming friends, spouses, partners in ministry, former bosses, Wall Street, the government, the church, or the man. However we get there, we are masters at resentment, what Dalrymple calls “pre-eminently the emotion or mode of feeling and thought of our time. When the social historians of the future, if there are any, come to characterize our era they will not call it the age of the atomic bomb, or the financial derivative age, or even that of the 100 per cent mortgage, they will call it the Age of Resentment” (211).
The wonderful thing about resentment is that it never lets you down.
For example, if someone points out to a resentful person reasons why he should not be resentful, he will immediately come up with reason why he should be. I have observed that when someone says ‘Yes, but…’ there is little purpose in continuing by providing reasons, evidence or arguments as to why that person should change his mind about the thing in question. Deeply unimaginative as that person might be in all other circumstances, when it comes to preserving his original standpoint from attack by people who want to argue him out of it, his imagination is infinitely fertile. (210)
Resentment is that “friend” that sticks closer than a brother. It allows you to dream of all you could have been and all your might have done if things had gone better for you (though, as Dalrymple points out, we never dream of all we wouldn’t have accomplished if things had gone worse). Resentment provides the comfort of an all-encompassing worldview. Every failure is attributable to some harm done to us. Everyone who disagrees with us is but another example of the hardship we must face. There is no unknown for the resentful person–everything has been decided in advance.
Resentment even changes the polarities of success and failure.
The fact that I am a failure in a certain regard shows that I am not only more sensitive than a vulgar success in that same regard, but really I am morally superior to him. To become a success, he has not had to contend with all that I have had to contend with to become a failure. Really, I am better than he, if only the world would recognize it. (210)
Of course, Dalrymple goes on to say, the world does not recognize failures. But this doesn’t matter in the economy of resentment. It doesn’t matter if people continue to disregard us, ignore us, or admonish us for our bitterness. Each new rebuke fits nicely into the recurring pattern and interpretive grid we’ve made for ourselves. “My original resentment can become a meta-resentment when the world refuses to recognize the justice of my complaints” (211).
There is no escaping the snare of resentment, save for the sovereign grace of God. Once you let the seed of bitterness get planted and take root, the flower only blooms what is bitter. No matter how much you reason, no matter how much you listen, no matter how much you care or critique, the matter is as clear to the resentful one as it ever was: it’s all your fault.