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Free Your Enemy

A man sitting on the ground in anger with his hands in front of his face
Though often cheesy, some church signs include profound truths. This one made me consider making some changes.

The other day I was driving through a neighborhood where I usually roll up the windows and lock the doors. It is not, typically, a spot where I would consider exiting my car. But as I was driving past Fireball Faith in Christ Jesus Church, the church sign caught my eye and captured my imagination. It read: “Free Your Enemy: Take Back Your Health and Wealth.”

I was so taken with the sign — even though I didn’t quite get it — that I pulled my car over, jumped out and snapped some photos of it.

As I drove away I thought about what those words might mean. It was like a riddle that I flipped over again and again in my mind. It did seem a bit over the top. I mean, if a person was poor to begin with, how would releasing their enemy make them rich? Could bitterness actually make a person sick?

I pondered all this on my drive home, and mentally compared the people I know who let go of grievances with those who hold them dear, and I became convinced that there was something to the idea.

It takes so much energy to be — and stay — angry. Unlike love, rage seems to contract our world rather than expand it. Instead of being able to care for the self and others — to live creatively and constructively in the world — anger keeps us tied to our enemy. It’s a sad irony when the person from the past we want most to escape begins to define us.

Unnecessary Crime

On June 3, 1968, a woman named Valerie Solanas entered Andy Warhol’s workspace. Some of Andy’s coworkers thought it odd that she was wearing a trench coat on such a hot day, that her mascara was smudged, and that she was clutching a brown paper bag.

Andy glanced down at the glass top of his desk, and at that moment, she pulled out a gun and began shooting. Andy suffered multiple gunshot wounds and nearly bled to death. Afterward, Valerie Solanas turned herself into the police, confessing her crime immediately, but expressing no remorse. She said, quite simply, “He had too much control over my life.”

Valerie had given a film manuscript to Andy, hoping that he would want to produce it. But it was too graphic even for him, and he never responded to her request.

While Andy went on with his life and continued to produce films and art, Solanas nursed her wounds. As time passed, the rage grew and grew until it finally culminated in attempted murder. As she admitted later about Andy, “I just wanted him to pay attention to me. Talking to him was like talking to a chair.”

Sweet, Sweet Revenge

Valerie’s attempted “revenge” fascinates me because it is an extreme example of something many of us struggle with. Valerie was obsessed with her perceived grievance. She must have thought about Andy constantly for years as she planned her crime.

Andy, on the other hand, had already dismissed her manuscript and gone on with his life. Andy was everything to Valerie and she was nothing to him, which was just more salt in the wound.

From the outside it’s easy to see the total lack of balance. Valerie spends her life on her obsession with Andy. She broods, she calculates, she formulates a plan to murder him. Her perception of Andy’s grievance against her shapes her life and causes a dehumanizing contraction of concerns.

But Andy won’t play the game. Even after he’s been shot, as he faces an excruciatingly painful recovery, he remains detached. In an interview with the Village Voice after the shooting he said, “I can’t feel anything against Valerie Solanas. When you hurt another person you never know how much it pains.”

Perhaps it’s possible to become addicted to rage — to that sense that another person has wronged you and that you must make them pay. This addiction — like all others — keeps you stuck in adolescence. Just as the alcoholic is in an exclusive relationship with the bottle, the embittered person is solely devoted to their rage.

Anger can be like a drug that provides a high and a crash. As Frederick Buechner writes,

“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

Take Back Your Health And Wealth

A friend of mine is bitter about her dad’s heavy drug use. She can recall all the ways that his addiction destroyed her childhood. She nurses her wounds, ruminates and waits for an apology that might never come.

“I’ll forgive my dad,” she tells me, “when he says that he is sorry.”

My friend doesn’t seem to realize that her dad may not feel any remorse — he might not even be capable of it — until he steps out from the smog of his addiction and has the courage to take a “a fearless moral inventory” as the Twelve Steps folks say.

Even for those who aren’t ensnared by addiction, it can be difficult to see how we’ve hurt others. A more complete awareness will only come after death when we begin to know even as we are fully known. Until then, we’re all groping in the dark, feeling our way through life as best as we can, and causing each other all kinds of untold pain in the process.

One reason that the church sign captured my attention is that it turned the idea of anger around. We don’t need to let go of our anger because it does harm to the other — although of course it can. But chiefly, we need to let go of our anger because, over time, it destroys us.

Take back your health and wealth. I don’t think it is any accident that bitter people are often unhealthy. Studies suggest that those who routinely forgive are less likely to visit their doctors for high blood pressure or other stress-related ailments.

And I can see how bitterness can make us less productive, because it takes vast amounts of energy to hold onto anger. It becomes difficult to give our full attention to anything — jobs, marriages, children — as long as our hearts and minds are tangled up with the enemy.

If you find your mind returning to grievances again and again, don’t be distressed. Sometimes that’s just a way of processing the pain. Berating yourself doesn’t help. And that initial anger, after all, is just a natural reaction to pain. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Anger is the fluid that love bleeds when you cut it.”

Sometimes it’s better to let a wound bleed than to conceal it. It might even need oxygen. But even before healing fully occurs, we hope toward a more expansive view of all that has been done to us and all that we’ve done to others. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Till We Have Faces”, “My anger protected me only for a short time: anger wearies itself out and truth comes in.”

Copyright 2008 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Jenny Schroedel

Jenny Schroedel lives in Holualoa, Hawaii, with her husband and two daughters. Her fifth book, Naming the Child: Hope-filled Reflections on Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Infant Death was released by Paraclete Press.

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