Holding Grudges

My brother recently came to town, without telling me, and took my adult and almost adult children out to dinner with him, behind my back. He also bought them some badly needed clothes. During this visit with them he was, apparently, maligning me to my children. One of the insults he applied to me, probably the least offensive, was that I “hold grudges.” I have been puzzling over this and wondering if it is true or, even if it is, whether it is wrong for me to hold grudges in this situation.

The last time I saw my brother was shortly after my divorce was finalized. He had already broken some of his promises to me – promises on which I was completely dependent since accepting my divorce settlement, crafted by him with a lawyer he had hired. The divorce settlement trapped me in an impossible situation in which I could only survive if my brother kept his verbal promises, which he neglected to write in any contract form. I, very foolishly, trusted him. After I had fulfilled my part of our deal by signing the wholly disastrous divorce settlement which allowed my brother to buy our house and property for far below its value, in exchange for me accepting the financially crushing settlement, my brother announced that he was not going to keep some of the promises he had made in exchange. This forced me and my children to remain living in unhealthy, unsafe, sub-human conditions that he had promised to mend. Then, three months later, my brother returned to announce that he was reneging on keeping the rest of his promises as well, thereby inflicting complete disaster on us.

His method for making this announcement was by coming into our home, flying into a rage, and wrongly blaming us for something that was only due to his negligence, which was outside of our control. He commenced yelling at us, in increasing volume until he was screaming, that my children and I were “too disgusting for anyone to ever want to help!” He kept screaming this for about an hour or more, over and over, until I not only gave up trying to have a calm, adult, rational conversation with him, which had been my objective, but I also gave up defending myself and my children from his wholly unjust, ridiculous accusation. I couldn’t insert so much as a single word into our interaction, and every attempt only made him rage worse. That left me with no way to defend myself or my innocent children. The children fled the common room but could still hear their uncle raging from their bedrooms. Once he felt I was sufficiently subdued and that his destructive message had been adequately beaten into us all, he stormed out of the house.

Shortly thereafter, my sister-in-law contacted me and told me I had to talk with my brother. I refused to attempt another verbal conversation on the basis that his prior behavior had proved he had no intention of allowing me to say anything at all. Instead, I emailed a letter, identifying his behavior as abusive (in accord with numerous textbook and other authoritative psychological definitions of “abuse”) and demanding an apology. He emailed back a long letter, the gist of which was

1. His behavior was not at all abusive (based solely on his opinion).

2. My attempt to keep talking to him and to respond to every point he was making was the reason he was forced to scream at us, over and over, that we were “too disgusting for anyone to ever what to help” until he could finally get me to shut up – i.e. his behavior was all my fault.

3. He felt so good doing this to us, during and especially afterward, that he can’t imagine why we didn’t also enjoy it – with the implication that there had to be something wrong with us for not being masochistic enough to enjoy his abuse of us.

I had planned to respond to his email but, after reading that last point, decided he was too insane for any response I could make to have any positive impact. I therefore decided to have as little contact with him as possible from then on.

I was not pleased when I discovered that he was texting and meeting with my children behind my back but, as one of them is now an official adult and the other two are 17, I figured I had no way to prevent them. What I know, that my children don’t, is that my brother was physically abusive toward me during our childhood, to the point where I felt unsafe in our home. Most vivid in my memory is one scene when my mother picked us both up from middle school. I sat in the front seat and was quietly trying to work on my homework on the way home. My brother, in the back seat, suddenly reached around my seat, wrapped both his hands around my neck, and began choaking me. I begged him to stop, which made him choak me harder. I tried to pull his hands away but could not, so I dug my nails in the back of his hands. He let go with one hand, and I let him go, withdrawing my nails from that hand, hoping he would realize that I would withdraw my nails from the other one as soon as he let me go. Instead, he used his free hand to begin battering my head and neck as hard as he could, trying to force me to release his other hand so he could continue throttling me, much harder, without my interference. It was getting difficult to breathe and I was terrified he’d bash in my head or break my neck, so I began crying while trying, and failing, to shield myself with my free arm. My mother responded by yelling at me, blaming me for causing a dangerous scene and distracting her while she was driving. She insisted that my brother was only “playing” and complained that I was “overreacting.” She accused me of having no sense of play, no sense of fun or humor, and said that this was why no one would like me, love me or value me in my life. I was doomed to failure because I could not enjoy my brother strangling me. My brother had been increasingly abusive toward me, throughout our lives, but that was the moment when I finally realized that, according to my family, I had no right at all even to my own body. I had no right to defend myself. If my brother succeeded in killing me (as I was afraid, during that scene, he might do,) then not only would my mother fail to blame him, but, in fact, my brother and my parents would all blame me. My murder by my brother would seem to them to be deserved, especially if I tried to protect myself. That was the moment that it hit me fully that I was absolutely unsafe in my own home and that the only way I was going to survive was to keep my head down and be as invisible as possible until I could move out.

We grew up and lived apart, so the physical abuse ended. He continued to be emotionally abusive when we met, especially when alone with me or in the presence of my mother, but we had both been raised to believe that I deserved this treatment and that it was not abuse, so I did my best to ignore it when I couldn’t avoid him. The recent scene in our home, however, was not only emotionally abusive, but there was the clear threat of physical violence behind it, directed now not only at me, but also at my children.

My brother including my children in his abuse was a revelation to me. I had accepted from childhood that I was in some inexplicable way deficient enough to deserve abuse, but there was no way I believed that of my children! Furthermore, in my experiences during my marriage and through the counseling I received afterward, I have since come to realize not only that emotional abuse is truly abuse, but that abuse only gets worse. It NEVER gets better. In our last interaction, my brother’s emotional abuse of me and my children was, apparently, extreme. There was no possible benefit to anyone at all in convincing me and my children that we were “too disgusting for anyone to ever want to help.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was about the worst possible thing a person could be – including no possibility of every being loved, valued, hired, or cared for by anyone in any way. It was wholly and only demoralizing of us. Worse, my children all believed their uncle, without questioning what he was saying. He is the most respected authority figure in their family, it seems. My brother’s behavior in the scene he made is clearly identifiable by objective, authoritative sources as textbook “abuse.” Beyond that, however, the horrific rage with which he inflicted it, along with the history of physical abuse, left me in no doubt at all that it would quickly escalate into physical as well as emotional abuse. He was not only making it absolutely clear that he had no affection nor even the slightest respect for any of us, but that he felt fully entitled to abuse us based on our current vulnerability and dependence on him. He obviously considered himself to have bought a whole family of punching bags with a handful of promises that no one could force him to keep.

My refusing contact with him since has so far put me out of his reach (though, with my impoverishment, that could change) but my children, being willing to meet with him, makes them vulnerable to him. So now I see him grooming them toward this end. His maligning me to my children to undermine what little, if any, respect for me they may still hold, thereby encouraging them to dismiss my warnings, is another step closer to when he starts beating on them physically as well as emotionally.

Is it a “grudge” to want to protect myself and my children from someone who had been abusive, defends his abuse, expresses enjoyment in abusing others, and whom I am certain intends to acerbate his abuse of us in the future? I would say my behavior is simple common sense. I don’t consider that I am holding a grudge against venomous snakes because I don’t want them in my home and I protect myself against them in the wild. I am only acknowledging the threat they pose and avoiding it. It seems to me the same with my brother. One might say that, because of our lifelong relationship, we have more mutual obligation to each other than I would have to a cobra, but, since our lifelong relationship has included instances of him being abusive to me throughout our childhood, and has been devoid of any instance of him showing me any true kindness or respect, then is it really so different? I believe that, if my brother had acknowledged the wrongness of his behavior toward me and my children, accepted the responsibility for it, promised to change, and not revealed the fact that he enjoyed doing it so much that he could not understand why we failed to enjoy having him do it to us, then I would have given him another chance. A wise counselor might have been appalled by my decision to do so, but, for the sake of our relationship, especially since he is the only immediate family member I have left on this earth, I might have risked it. He did the opposite, however, so of course I want to avoid the obvious risk he now poses to myself and my children. Can this, therefore, be rightly termed “holding a grudge?” And, if it is “holding a grudge,” is it really wrong to do so?

Serving Others is the Key to Personal Well-Being

With a week to go to Mother’s Day, 2022, I have been presented with yet another example of how I have failed as a mother.

One of my daughters was tasked with writing a paper about what she needs for her well-being. She was left to narrow down this broad topic to a smaller thesis, then write 800 words supporting it. She turned to me for help, so I started trying to get her to think about what she needed in her life to count herself as healthy and happy. She came up with food, sleep, and entertainment. It seemed to me there was a lot missing in this list, but I thought I could work with it.

“What do you need in order to get enough food, sleep, and entertainment?” I began.

She immediately jumped to someone to give her food, the proper conditions for sleep, and things to entertain her. I stifled my disappointment because, despite my urging, so far she has never had a job. She has never earned anything for herself. People giving her things is all she knows. As sad as I was that this was her first thought, it should not have been a surprise.

“What if no one is willing or able to give you these things? How do you get them for yourself?”

Her next thought was that she would take them. Stealing, or manipulating, to get things from other people who would generally be unwilling to give to her, seemed to her a good, healthy thing to do.

I balked, horrified. I pointed out that if people only stole from each other, eventually there would be nothing left to steal. Also, by stealing and manipulating, a person destroys all potential for building love and trust, which are necessary foundations for creating healthy relationships. They also lose honor – not only from others, but also in their own eyes.

She argued that stealing and manipulating are skills, and she could feel proud of her skills in this area (which, I desperately hope, she has not yet proved). She insisted that, even if her victims no longer trusted, respected, or admired her, other thieves and liars would be impressed by her thieving and lying skills. I suspected that other thieves and liars would tend more to be threatened rather than admiring, if her skills in this area were truly good. Also, what is the point of gaining the approval of dishonest, thieving people, assuming they would even give it? These are not people you can trust or with whom you can build any kind of healthy relationships. They are not people you want to have in your life at all. Whatever you may ever gain, by any means, is subject to be taken away from you by such people. Furthermore, if you are making yourself into someone no one else, including other thieves and liars, would ever want in their lives, how can that make you happy? What have you gained?

Her answer: food, sleep, and entertainment. She insists that this is all she wants. All my talk about honor, self-respect, and healthy relationships seemed worthless to her.

I switched to a new angle. I started to talk to her about how we build healthy lives in this world – how we earn money to honestly provide for ourselves the basic necessities plus, hopefully, a bit more. It all comes down to service. We assess what we can do, look to see what others need and want, and try to establish connections between our abilities and their needs and desires so that we can best serve others. We provide goods or services that others need and want enough to be willing to pay us for them. Economy 101: we serve others.

This is the way we not only make money to meet our own needs and desires, but it also builds our characters, strengthening the skills necessary for healthy, thriving, loving relationships. Any partnership of any kind – business, friendship, romantic or familial – requires people to be constantly alert to how they can help each other. All good relationships, at their core, are people mutually serving each other. The sole exception to this might be in parental relationships, where the parents only serve their children without any reciprocity. Ideally, however, the love, respect and honor that the children develop from this initial one-way service to them, will not only be paid forward, by them someday serving their own children, but also will make them honored to be able to serve their parents as their parents age, sicken and require more help.

Acquiring the healthy habit of looking to see how we can serve others also builds in ourselves self-esteem and healthy pride. We realize a sense of value in ourselves when others value us – which happens when we prove our ability to help others. The more valuable we become to others, the more valuable we feel in ourselves. This can become an ever-increasing cycle of improvement as we, realizing that we do have direct and real value through serving others, then increase our value to others by expanding our service into teaching others how to improve their own value. The ability to mentor others increases our sense of value and pride immeasurably. It also increases our self-confidence and encourages us to take risks to increase our value in other ways we might not have considered before, perhaps by learning new skills or experimenting with new approaches to meet the needs and desires of others. Wealth, prosperity, and well-being, thereby grow. We become creators of great and increasing good in this world, not only for ourselves, but for everyone.

Serving others is the true key to building our personal well-being on every level. The fact that it also helps build well-being for others is a joyful side-effect. Ultimately, serving others is identical to serving ourselves. Through this, we benefit the entire world, as well as ourselves.

This is a lesson I have striven to teach my children every day of their lives from birth. Sadly, today, I discovered that at least one of my children wholly rejects this lesson. I cannot see any path to happiness, health, or wealth for her by refusing to accept this fundamental truth, but none of my arguments could make a dent in her insistence that serving others sounds horrible to her. I am not only frustrated, but deeply grieving.

She insists on following her father’s path in life, despite the obvious proof that it has led him to nothing but the destruction of everything good in his life and the completion of his own, self-created misery. I could find no way to save him, despite my continuous efforts throughout our marriage. I learned, the hard way, that you cannot help someone who steadfastly refuses to help himself.

All I could give to my ex-husband could never be enough for him, because he had chosen to be a taker in life rather than a creator – which is a direct result of scorning the attitude of serving others. Lacking the capacity to create for himself, he was always going to be insecure in taking what he needed from others. All resources are a zero-sum game to those who lack the ability or desire to create more but, rather, content themselves with only taking. Knowing that his resources were limited to what he could take from what others created, he could never have enough to feel secure, no matter how much he stole or lied to take, or even how much was lovingly given to him, since what is given can be withheld or withdrawn.

Sadly, I did not realize how handicapped he insisted on making himself until too late. I also failed to realize that he was so severely damaging his children by teaching them his self-destructive attitudes and undermining the healthy attitudes I was trying to teach and demonstrate. Even so, I cannot comprehend why any of our children would model themselves after him. Simple common sense should serve to make obvious the failure of his teachings, even if his entire life were not the testament to their failure that it now is. Why, then, cannot my beautiful, bright, healthy daughter, full of unlimited potential, see the clear need to avoid following her father’s path to her own destruction?