For the past two weeks, "The Grudge" has been the number one movie in America and has proclaimed itself "the scariest film of 2004." The movie, a remake of a popular Japanese film, is the story of a house with ferocious ghosts who seek revenge on all who enter. Japanese film director Takashi Shimizu is quoted as saying that Japanese ghosts are "very angry, very violent. You can't communicate with them like you can American ghosts."

The first words that appear on the screen make it clear that the grudge is "a curse that causes its victims to die in the grip of a terrible rage." Americans may be quite different from Japanese spirits, but it is scary what grudges can do to us, as individuals and as a community.

Consider the post-election situation. Differences of opinion are good if they are honestly faced, but as this election year played out, we saw an increase of anger between political parties and candidates that trickled down to the electorate. Now that the election is over, a common fear is that politicians may carry grudges that will hamper our democratic system.

On a personal level, we might be tempted to hold grudges against relatives, friends, and neighbors who voted differently from us, against American voters we don't even know personally, and against the candidates we opposed.

Overcoming all manner of grudges-both personal and political-will be a most important task for Americans this coming year.

For example, Jon, a passionate Kerry supporter, has argued for months with his parents, conservative Republicans who live in a battleground state and supported President Bush. Jon now feels angry with his parents for what he sees as their role in defeating Kerry. And he anticipates feeling waves of resentment whenever the Bush administration pursues a policy he disagrees with.

Grudges are even more common in our intimate lives. Susan, a mother of two, was dumbfounded when Brendan, her husband of twenty-six years, stood in the doorway of their family room and simply announced, "I'm leaving you. I'm filing for divorce. I'm in love with someone else."

Susan was devastated. She felt betrayed by Brendan. Overcome by humiliation, she avoided her friends, dropped out of her clubs and church, and spent her days and nights in solitary brooding. Time did not heal her wounds. Rather her resentment toward Brendan grew year after year, as she struggled to keep herself together.

We all have battle stories. There is not a soul alive who hasn't been hurt and retaliated by nursing a grudge. A study by the University of Michigan found that 48 percent of us admit to holding grudges, and that probably the actual figure is much higher than that. Do you hold grudges? How easily do you forgive? When you are hurt, what does it take from the other person before you are willing to reconcile? Do you build a barrier of silence or withdrawal?

A grudge is actually a technique we use to gain control over someone who has wronged us. On a personal level, it's a way of demanding that they earn their way back into our lives and guarantee that "it" won't happen again. It's a way (but not the best way) of protecting ourselves from being hurt. At the political level, it is a type of constant campaigning, in which the person who holds the grudge can pull out an "I told you so" whenever a negative political situation arises from the opposing side.

But holding a grudge, whether for political, personal, or even frivolous reasons like sports rivalries, is hazardous to your health. Dr. Phil McGraw quotes studies that show grudges increase stress, raise blood pressure, help develop ulcers, and produce a multitude of other side effects. It doesn't take a medical researcher to convince us that a grudge can ruin our health and shorten our life. We all know the lousy way we feel when we are angry with another person.

But when we treasure our grudges like misers, we are insisting on our right to continue to be miserable. And that hatred destroys more than our health. It's no accident that every single great religious tradition has taught that forgiveness is the most important step on the path to true contentment.

When any type of grudge dredges up feelings from the past and attempts to take over your emotions, there are alternatives you can practice:

  • Remember you have a choice. You can brood over the past and get upset and angry, or you can let go of the painful thoughts. You wouldn't keep your hand on a hot stove. Why allow burning thoughts to stay in your mind?
  • Practice letting go of your anger. Physical activity can help. Take a walk, go to the gym, or change what you are doing to something else. Get up, move, and alter your environment. In the political scenario, try to channel your energy and idealism into a constructive task, like volunteering for a charity or non-profit organization.
  • Pray. Find help by connecting with God. But in your prayer don't rehash the details of how you have been hurt. God knows all the details, and going over them simply reinforces your pain. So just ask God to help you find release from the bitterness, move on to thank God for his blessings, and then pray for others.
  • Reach past your anger to reconnect. If your grudge has estranged you from someone in your life, ask yourself, "Is this relationship important to me?" If so, stop playing the blame game. Barbara LeBay, a former judge and author of "Family Estrangements," recommends calling to say you're sorry for having shut them out and that you want to reconnect. Or ask a friend or relative to act as an intermediary.
  • Take to heart Paul's instructions given in Ephesians 4:32, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other."
  • Let me share the happy ending to the story of Susan, who spent years imprisoned by resentment of the terrible hurt inflicted by her husband. One day a friend told Susan about the success that her ex was having in his life. Before, when she had learned something positive about Brendan, it had made her angry. This time Susan first had a burst of anger, then she had a sudden flash of understanding. She realized that she was the only one affected by her continuing grudge. Brendan had moved on with his life and was happy.

    Susan asked herself, "Do I want to live the rest of my life living as an unhappy victim?" Her first thought was that she was hurt so deeply that she couldn't forgive. But then she realized she was really saying, "I won't forgive." Instantly she recalled the many times she had instructed children in Sunday school that Jesus had taught his disciples that whenever they prayed to ask for help, they should forgive as they had been forgiven. Susan remembers making a conscious decision to release herself from her grudge and the negative behaviors that had resulted from her unforgiving spirit.

    Susan told me, "It wasn't just forgiving Brendan. My greatest reward was learning to forgive myself."

    Susan prayed for courage, then began to do things with friends for the first time in years. She was pleasantly surprised to learn that when she stopped complaining about Brendan, her old friends were willing to be with her again. Susan timidly started going to church. She was afraid that church members who knew about her divorce would be judgmental and reject her. Instead a group of single women invited her to go out for lunch after church with them each week and Susan made new friends.

    To release a grudge and choose forgiveness may not be easy-if your child has been killed by a drunk driver, your daughter has been brutally raped, or your spouse has been unfaithful-it can be the hardest thing in the world. But it is imperative that you try-otherwise you are just re-injuring yourself. With really deep hurts, it is important to find the help of God. The good news is that you need not face this alone. Ask your pastor or the leader of your house of worship for guidance and support.

    Philip Yancey, in his book "What's So Amazing About Grace?" points out that we are forgiven by God's grace. Then we are called to break the chain of ungrace, the chain of blame and pain. He writes, "Somehow we need to get beneath the: He needs to learn a lesson; I don't want to encourage irresponsible behavior; I'll let her stew for a while; It's just not right; I was the wronged party-it's not up to me to make the first move. How can I forgive if he's not even sorry. Accept God's grace, and pray that God will give you the grace to let go of your grudge."

    Jon, the young man who is still angry with his parents because of the election, hopes that his forgiveness may lead his parents to change; but they may never change. As Lewis Smedes writes in "Shame and Grace," "The first and often the only person to be healed by forgiveness is the person who does the forgiving. When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free was us."

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