For the past several weeks I have been writing stories about my world travels, and this process has been illuminating. I’ve enjoyed revisiting places and situations I remember often and usually with great fondness, but writing about them in such detail has reintroduced a dark shadow in my mind. I am well past the trauma of my abusive marriage, but retelling these stories has called up memories of the pall of unhappiness and fear I lived under during the 18 years I was with my husband Douglas. It has reminded me of the person I was then, and of the person I have fought to become over the past 24 years since I left my marriage.
Douglas died of leukaemia a scant 10 months after I moved out of our matrimonial home, and I assumed at the time that his being gone, along with the passage of time, would naturally bring me to a place of forgiveness. It did not. I realized about a decade after he had died that I was still haunted by the way he had treated me, and that I simply could not proceed happily in my life until I actively forgave him. I promptly made an appointment with my therapist and went to the library to find resources about forgiveness. I ended up with a couple of very good books and an excellent video which featured three situations wherein exceptional people had managed, through sheer will and intrinsic goodness, to truly forgive others who had caused them grievous harm.
The documentary opened with Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor whose harrowing time in Auschwitz and Buchenwald forms the basis of his brilliant novel Night. Wiesel famously forgave his persecutors as a way of moving forward with his life, and he spoke often of his experiences to try and prevent such atrocities from ever happening again. The second part of the video explored the shocking mass shooting in an Amish schoolhouse in 2006. A man named Carl Roberts entered the school in the morning and took 10 girls hostage. By the end of the day he had shot eight of them, killing five, and taken his own life. The Amish community, although shaken to its core, immediately responded with forgiveness for this troubled young man. Their compassion was almost unbelievable. The third segment concerned a man whose teenage son had been shot by a schoolmate who was strung out on drugs at the time. The young murderer was tremendously remorseful, and the video showed the father of the victim meeting his son’s killer in prison and offering his full and free forgiveness. Extraordinary.
Watching this video was incredibly inspiring, but it confirmed what I had feared all along – I am simply not a big enough person to truly forgive. I was not willing to continue feeling sad, hurt, and vengeful for the rest of my life, so I knew I had to find another path to healing. That’s when I began to think about hatred. The Buddha said that holding hatred in the mind and heart is like tightly clutching a hot coal in your hand – all it does is cause you to suffer. I began to understand that I would have to stop hating Douglas if there was any hope of me being happy, and the first step in that process was to get to the bottom of why I had stayed with him for so long. In other words, I needed to forgive myself before I could stop hating him.
Douglas was one of my brother’s best friends and I had known him since I was 12 years old. It was just bad luck and propinquity that led me into a relationship with him. We began dating when I was 17 and I didn’t manage to leave him until I was 35, meaning he was among the people who shaped my adolescence before becoming the dominant influence during my formative adult years. He was extremely controlling, and I bent to his will and worldview as a matter of survival. My safest way forward was to parrot his thoughts and actions, and thus I never really became my own person. Part of the reason I eventually screwed up the courage to leave Douglas was because, as the years passed, this lack of selfhood began to make me feel like I was literally going to die. I was so amorphous and adrift that I started to feel like nothing and no-one. Once I was on my own, the passage of time along with a lot of therapy and hard introspection allowed my true self to blossom, and I eventually came to quite like the person who emerged.
My therapist said all these things when I saw her again 10 years after Douglas had died. She reminded me that I had long since discounted the terrible things he had insisted were true about me along with the awful names he had regularly called me, and that I had thoroughly proven myself to be someone worthy of care in the decade since his death. These assertions were ringing loud and true in my mind when I finally forgave myself for staying in that miserable situation for so long, which left me free to take a more balanced view of Douglas and his motivations. Douglas grew up in a family where ‘every man for himself’ was the guiding credo. The familial lack of love, support, and acceptance – elements every growing child needs – warped him into the hard and narcissistic adult he became. I was now able to consider these factors much more objectively and dispassionately, and my hatred simply slipped away.
This entire process got me thinking more deeply about the nature of hatred. The Buddha spoke extensively of the suffering it causes, but I couldn’t really think of any other religion that tackled it head on. A cursory dip into the guiding principles of Islam brought up the concepts of sincerity, honesty, and goodwill – all noble aims, but none of which specifically proscribe, or even touch on, hatred. Then I looked at the Ten Commandments, the first four of which admonish God’s people to consistently love, worship, and praise him. The need for this much adoration suggests a surprising insecurity given the whole omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence thing. The final six Commandments are for me extraordinary in what they do not prohibit – there is of course no mention of hatred, but more disturbingly rape, assault, and slavery are not explicitly forbidden. Huh.
My investigation then led me to the Seven Deadly Sins – a series of behaviours or feelings which, according to Roman Catholic theology, are often the gateways to further and worse sins. The list was compiled by a 4th century Christian ascetic, but didn’t gain traction until it was picked up and elaborated on by Sir Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. The sins are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. They correspond inversely to the seven virtues of humility, charity, chastity, gratitude, temperance, patience, and diligence. Lust, gluttony, and sloth really only become problematic when they are taken to the extreme. Lust is pleasurable and harmless when it is reciprocated, over-indulging from time to time can be extremely fun and satisfying, and having a messy space means nothing if that’s how you like to live. I think they are spot on in naming envy, wrath, and greed, but would argue that not all pride is bad.
At the age of 28 I went to university and got a three year B.A. in two years. At the end of my first year I was awarded a cash endowment called the Hodgkin’s Prize along with The Prince of Wales Gold Metal, both given in recognition of academic excellence. When I shared this exciting news with Douglas his response was, “Yeah, but school is easy for you.” It was impossible for me to take pride in anything I did when my husband constantly undermined and dismissed my accomplishments. It wasn’t until years after my marriage had ended that I realized those prizes were worth celebrating. I had been awarded two scholastic accolades in a faculty of some 26,000 students despite having taken on a particularly heavy academic load while still running a household. It was a straight equation – I had worked my ass off and was rewarded for my efforts.
This was surely a case where pride was merited. I think bad outcomes often follow when one’s sense of pride is unfounded, or when it leads to feelings of superiority. Donald Trump perfectly embodies the dangers inherent in this kind of pride. If one’s pride springs from feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction resulting from either one’s own or another’s efforts and accomplishments, then I think that is a good thing. Pride which follows a job well done is uplifting and inspiring, and there is nothing better than knowing that someone you love is proud of you.
I looked at other writings and religious tenets but couldn’t find anything which spoke to what I would call the eighth and most dangerous deadly sin, hatred. Every faith has a version of the Golden Rule, but that only speaks to right action, not right feelings. I would argue that hatred of the other is actually a cornerstone of many world religions. The subjugation and genocide of indigenous peoples and the Inquisition were carried out by devout Christians with the blessing of their church. In America the abomination of slavery was consistently justified with the bible, the twin towers came down in the name of Allah, and many people who believe Q’s hateful rhetoric are evangelicals. The Vatican (led by the notoriously anti-semitic Pope Pius XII), remained silent throughout the Holocaust, and for years many Muslim nations have proudly proclaimed their wish to drive Israeli Jews into the sea. Hatred not only exists between religions, but also within them. There is constant tension that occasionally erupts into violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East, as well as between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland.
The arts consistently explore hatred and its costs. In Les Miserable, Jalvert’s raison d’être springs from his abhorrence of Valjean and his ongoing quest to capture him. Valjean’s unexpected mercy towards Jalvert towards the end of the book so upends Jalvert’s sense of reality and purpose that he can see no way forward and kills himself. The historic antipathy between the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet ends up costing both families their beloved children, Captain Hook’s hatred of Peter Pan dooms him to a joyless life which ends violently in the jaws of a crocodile, and Ahab’s loathing of Moby Dick leads him to a watery grave.
I recently experienced an incident in my own life which could easily have left me feeling protracted hatred. Peri-menopause can lead to many symptoms – insomnia, hot flashes, mood swings, etc. I experienced all of these along with profound anxiety. Lucky me! The anti-anxiety medication my doctor recommended made me very sleepy, and the antidepressants he prescribed led to side effects worse than the problem they were designed to alleviate. Over time the anxiety began to negatively impact my ability to do my job. I was skittish, inattentive, and often short tempered with the children in my care. I did some research about alternative medicines and found numerous anecdotal accounts of cannabis being extremely effective at alleviating anxiety. My doctor refused to prescribe medical marijuana, so I secured some THC gummies elsewhere. I took the time to figure out the proper dosage at home, and began using them at work on days when my anxiety was particularly acute. Much to my delight the THC worked perfectly – it calmed my stomach, elevated my mood, and allowed me to focus without causing any detrimental side effects.
Many people on staff knew I was using cannabis to treat my anxiety, and one day I mentioned to a colleague in the staffroom how grateful I was to have finally found such an effective medication. There was a new teacher at the table who clearly did not approve of what I was doing. Rather than talking to me about her concerns, however, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She let herself into my locked and darkened office after school, rummaged through my personal effects until she found what she was looking for, and then promptly reported me to the principal. I usually kept the bag of gummies in my purse, but had hidden it in my office that morning when some kids had come in unexpectedly while I was taking my dose. The bag was so well hidden that I stupidly forgot to put it back in my purse at the end of the day.
The ordeal that followed because of her betrayal was just awful. Firstly I was humiliated by having to talk to complete strangers from HR, as well as my principal and superintendent, about peri-menopausal health issues which were absolutely none of their business. Then I was verbally rebuked, suspended without pay for ten days, and had a letter of reprimand placed in my permanent record. My case was also sent on to the College of Teachers, a notoriously punitive body, which meant I needed a lawyer to represent me in the investigation which would follow. Meanwhile there were absolutely no repercussions for the young woman who had so obviously invaded my privacy.
The pressure of the investigation along with my general dissatisfaction with my job led me to take an early retirement. I was full of hatred for the young woman who had so blithely exploded my life, and deeply resented that her actions resulted in me ending an otherwise spotless 19 year career on an absolutely terrible note. I knew from my long and hard struggle after Douglas died that I needed to purge my hatred or it would end up making an already terrible situation exponentially worse. Douglas was at least someone I had once loved, and I knew the roots of his behaviour. I didn’t know this young woman at all, and I couldn’t even begin to guess at her motives for doing what she did. I was therefore at a loss as to how to frame her actions in a way which would allow me to stop hating her.
I am very close with my cousin Greg. I was talking to him a few months after I’d retired and asked if he had any suggestions about how I could get past my hatred of this woman. He said, “You don’t have to do anything, just move on. The way I see it, people who’ve screwed me over don’t deserve another thought. If I’m hating them, I’m thinking about them, so I don’t.” I thought this sounded awfully simplistic, or at least like something I couldn’t do, but it turns out I could. In Greg’s scenario, not hating someone is a way of saying “Fuck you!” That was exactly the advice I needed, and it worked so well that I can now recount this whole nasty incident with almost no negative feelings whatsoever.
I absolutely believe the Buddha’s assertion that hatred increases the suffering of the person holding on to it, but it can also lead to terrible consequences for others. Hatred blocks reason and empathy. It allows one to disregard the humanity of others by justifying a lack of compassion in oneself. It paves the way for torture, war, and genocide. This is why I deem it to be the eighth deadly sin, and why it might be the only one worth worrying about. The good news, however, is that like the other deadly sins, hatred has a virtue which corresponds inversely to it – love. If we hold on to love, if we ignore the hatred and closed-mindedness endemic to organized religion and choose rather to practice love in the way Buddha and Jesus Christ and Mohammed all admonish us to, then we will find ourselves on the right path.