Suppose you’re angry on Tuesday because someone stole from you on Monday. On Wednesday that person returned what he stole, compensated you for the inconvenience, apologized, and credibly promised never to do it again. If you’re still angry on Thursday, you are said to be holding a grudge.
Plenty of people say grudges should be abolished. They are irrational, lead to unbalanced retribution, and hurt the holder of the grudge. I’ve said so myself in my book, The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. It’s one of the many ways that victims get wrecked on the road to reconciliation and fail to find peace. But an article in The Boston Review by Agnes Callard caused me to reconsider. She says holding a grudge is a perfectly rational thing to do. Could this be true?
Grudges begin in anger and retain many of the characteristics of that hot emotion. Feeling angry is a useful indication that you’re the victim of an injustice. Someone, without a legitimate claim, took what was yours. It wasn’t right and they ought to be punished. As far as that goes, anger is a valuable signal and motivation to get justice; but anger often leads to problems such as violence, vindictive retribution, and elevated cortisol levels of the angry person. When you hold a grudge, you persist in in your anger and increase the likelihood that the problems of anger will emerge.
It might be nice to cut out the problems relating from anger while keeping the righteous parts; keep your anger long enough to get the message that someone is harming you but set it aside before anyone else gets hurt. Is that even possible? I’m not asking whether you can restrain yourself from blowing your top when someone hurts you; of course, you can. I’m asking if, when you remove violence, retribution, cortisol, and grudges, are you depriving anger of its vigor?
By the way, if you don’t believe you can restrain yourself when you’re hurt, I ask you to submit the incident to the Biker Test. It goes like this: imagine you believe that you were unable to restrain yourself from hitting your wife. She provoked you and you snapped. To submit the incident to the Biker Test, ask yourself if you would have hit the provocative person if it was a big, scary biker, and not your wife. I bet you wouldn’t, unless you were a big, scary biker, yourself.
Let’s return to the original example. Someone stole from you on Monday and made it right on Wednesday. Now, it’s Thursday. Why are you still bearing a grudge?
First, we need to set aside the fact that very few offenders ever really make it right as the person in our example did. They claim to apologize while making excuses, perform inadequate restitution, and developed no plan to ever do it again. If you are the recipient of a half-assed reparation, then it’s no wonder you’re holding a grudge. The harm was inadequately addressed, and your grudge is a reminder of promises never delivered and wrongs never righted.
But what if that’s not the case, imagine the person who robbed you did an excellent job apologizing and making reparations. Are you justified in holding a grudge the next day?
I believe you are. In addition to losing your stuff, you suffered a betrayal of trust. Trust is such an essential part of social life; we take ninety percent of it for granted. You may lock your doors when you leave, but you still trust that no one will break in and steal from you. You wouldn’t be angry if you didn’t. Part of the harm done when they swiped your stuff was that you lost your stuff; but the greater harm is that you can no longer trust.
Broken trust is not something you can repair in one day. They can bring back on Wednesday the stuff that they stole on Monday; they can compensate you for your inconvenience; they can affirm that what they did was wrong; they can claim to be trustworthy now; but until they actually deliver some trustworthiness, you’ve got to hold them to it. Trustworthiness cannot be delivered all at once; it must come in over time, through sustained reliability. As long as they’re in your debt, you have the right to hold a grudge.
Let’s push the question a little further. It’s one year later. The person who stole your stuff has not stolen any more stuff. He gives every indication of being reformed. He has proved himself to be trustworthy, but you are still holding a grudge. Are you right to do so?
The reasons to hold a grudge are the same as the reasons to get angry in the first place. Apologies, restitution, and subsequent trustworthiness do nothing to change the fact that he stole, nor the fact that he ought not to have stolen. There are some things that can never be made right. What he did (steal) will always be different from what he should have done (not steal) no matter what he does next. Once you have a reason to be angry, you have a reason to be angry forever.
I must conclude that grudges are perfectly logical, justified, and intelligible. You are not crazy to hold one. What may be more crazy would be to set the grudge aside. Why would anyone forgive?
One reason is, with all the harms that you could suffer over the course of a lifetime, it’s impossible to carry so many grudges. You must pick and choose, and it can be a practical matter of which grudge to hold on to longer. It all comes down to the Biker Test. When the cost of keeping a grudge is greater than the cost of letting it go, then forgiveness makes sense.
In the same vein, sometimes the person you are holding a grudge against is someone you must ally with towards an important goal. Your spouse, for instance, who might have hurt you. You might have a good reason to hold a grudge against her, but she’s the mother of your children, a contributor towards your mortgage, and your partner in bed at night. If you lay aside your grudge, you’d enjoy all that better. When the benefits of letting a grudge go are greater, you have an even better argument for forgiveness.
You see, justice is an important value; but it’s not the only thing to value in life. You could also value your kids, your home, having a regular sexual partner, and not having to sleep with your enemy. There’s another value that also often counters that of justice. It’s called mercy. Justice is when people get what they deserve. Mercy is when they don’t.
Mercy is what you have when you have every reason to keep a grudge; but don’t. You might have mercy, as I said, because you are seeking greater goods than those that can be achieved by justice. You might also have mercy when you realize that you and the person who offended you are really not that different. Has he stolen from you? You have stolen things, too. He was at fault; but, have you been faultless since Monday, when he ripped you off? Victims of injustice are never as innocent as they would like to claim. Either they are morally compromised by the vengeful character of their anger, or they are morally compromised by acquiescence.
I must conclude that holding a grudge is a perfectly rational thing to do; but so is showing mercy. It’s your choice. But, when you are making your choice, be sure to pay attention to all the factors involved. Don’t only listen to your anger because it yells the loudest. Pay attention to mercy, too. It speaks softly but has something important to say.