Recently a convicted felon wrote columnist “Dear Abby” lamenting he was “on a one-way trip down a road that leads nowhere.” The man said he felt hopeless about his future behind bars and signed his name “Inmate on a Dead End.”
A few weeks later, another reader of the column wrote to say: “I want ‘Inmate’ to know that one is never beyond hope. Prison may be the best thing that ever happened to him—it was for my husband.” She signed off as “Proud Wife in New Jersey.”
That proud wife explained her husband is “living proof that you don’t have to be stuck on a dead end.” As an 18-year-old, he made some unfortunate decisions, got mixed up with drugs and the wrong group. As a result, he was tried on 15 counts of armed robbery and convicted on two of them.
The youth was sentenced to prison for 15 years. He too gave up the hope of having a different life. After two years of his sentence, the man realized that self-pity and hopelessness were not helpful. He gave up drugs and began taking classes offered at the prison. After six years of model behavior, he was released on parole. That was when his future wife met him.
“After getting to know this man and finding out who he once was, compared to who he has become in the past 10 years, I cannot say enough about how proud I am of him,” said the letter. “In the four years since his release, he has ended his parole and is completing his college degree. We have gotten married and just purchased our first home. These are accomplishments he never believed possible when he was first locked up.”
The lesson from that inmate’s transformation is a basic one: He chose not to indulge in the emotional poison of bitterness about himself, his life and his circumstances.
Rather than assign blame—inadequate defense, poverty, an unfair judicial system, etc., he accepted personal responsibility for his actions, opted to reshape his present and create a more hopeful future.
Whenever we make poor decisions, commit costly errors or become the object of gossip, slander and betrayal, we must be careful not to become bitter. Bitter people are at war with the world because they are convinced that life is cheating them. Their negativity only intensifies their hostility and anger.
On the other hand, a healthy attitude leads to a healthier outcome.
“It all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves,” noted Carl Jung.
Likewise, John Milton wrote: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Here are some ways to beat bitterness
Recognize and respond to helpers.
Even if those closest to you have abandoned you and you are left feeling completely deserted, understand that there are others who will come into your life bringing the gifts of hope and help. Recognize and respond to helpers when they appear.
Consider the life of Patricia Cornwell, the best-selling author of medical thrillers such as “The Last Precinct.” She grew up in the tiny town of Montreat, N.C.
She painfully recalls the Christmas of her ninth year. Her mother, a single parent, was struggling to take care of Patricia and her two brothers, ages 6 and 10. As Christmas approached, there was no money for gifts, food or heating oil.
In complete despair, the mother walked her three children to the place where Ruth and Billy Graham lived. The mother did not know the Graham’s personally. There, Patricia’s mother handed Ruth a note saying she was giving the three children to the Grahams. Within hours, the mother was checked into a hospital where she remained for several months.
Ruth Graham greeted the children warmly and fed them a meal of spaghetti. Of course, she could not keep the children and they were placed into a foster home.
As Patricia continued to live and grow up in Montreat, she would see Ruth Graham from time to time “but it wasn’t until I was 19 and had dropped out of college that she and I became friends. At the time, I had a severe eating disorder, was depressed and believed I was utterly worthless,” Cornwell explains.
Gently Ruth Graham “began to bring me back to life by making me feel I must be special…she encouraged my writing and told me I was talented. When I returned to college, she visited me, sent money and wrote to me. If any single person in this world made a difference in my life she did.”
The lesson: While Ruth Graham was undoubtedly a powerful aid for the young Cornwall, it was only because Cornwall recognized and responded to a helper sent her way. Her life and story could have turned out completely differently had she chosen to ignore Ruth Graham’s overtures.
Bring Beauty into your life.
When life delivers disappointment, everything seems dark and dreary. Offset this feeling by bringing beauty back into your life. Spend time in nature. Buy yourself a flower. Take in an inspiring, motivational lecture. Spend time with a friend who lifts your spirits. Listen to music. Connecting with the beauty of the world all around you is deeply healing and slashes bitterness.
Respond proactively to a crisis.
When life delivers an unsettling blow, you don’t have to be a passive victim. Be proactive when you are impacted by a decision or an event. When you do so, you become instrumental in creating another opportunity.
Consider this lesson learned by TV star and karate champion, Chuck Norris. When he was young, his family moved to Southern California from the small prairie town of Wilson, Oklahoma. Shortly after arriving in the new state, the father abandoned the family. They lived off government aid until Norris’ mother landed a job at an aircraft plant where she worked from three until midnight.
“With no money for babysitters, I rushed home from school every day to care for my two younger brothers,” Norris recalls.
By the time he was 16, his mother remarried and his baby-sitting job ended. So he found a job packing groceries at a market in Gardena, a Los Angeles suburb.
“I thought everything was fine, until the end of the first day, when the manager told me not to return. I wasn’t sacking fast enough,” Norris explained.
A painfully shy youth, he surprised even himself when he blurted out, “Let me come back tomorrow and try one more time. I know I’ll do better,” he pleaded.
The manager agreed and Norris returned doing better. The manager retained Norris as an employee.
“That moment when I spoke up is burned in my memory, and so is the lesson: If you want to accomplish anything in life, you can’t just sit back and hope it will happen. You’ve got to make it happen.”
Take and honest look at yourself.
Do some self-examination. Ask yourself these kinds of hard questions:
- What actions did I take or fail to take which contribute to my dilemma?”
- Am I guilty of blaming others for something that was my fault?
- What can I learn from this experience?
- What steps can I now take to emerge better, not bitter from this?
- Have I been a good listener?
- Did I respond appropriately to criticism and warnings?
- Can I ask others for feedback and will I listen carefully?
- Taking an honest look at yourself opens the way for you to let go of the past and move forward into the future.
- Extend compassion toward those who have hurt you or disappointed you.
The pain of betrayal, rejection and abandonment by a friend or colleague cuts deeply into our psyche. It’s easy to dislike and hate the person who has wounded us. Yet, beating bitterness means forgiving and extending compassion toward such individuals.
Here is a simple exercise or spiritual meditation, which can free us to do this. It involves three steps: First, hold in your mind the image of a person you love very much and who loves you back. Think how you wish only the best for that person—good health, contentment and to be free of suffering.
Secondly, hold in your mind the image of a person toward whom you have neutral feelings. Extend the same feelings of love, warmth and compassion toward them for a few moments.
Thirdly, place in your mind the person who has hurt you. Expand your feelings of warmth and compassion to include that individual. Try to think of that person the same way you do about the person you love.
Finally, to beat bitterness, reprogram your thinking. Change your thoughts and your words concerning your situation.
Rather than saying, “This is the worst thing that could have happened to me,” try saying, “this is painful, stressful and difficult, but I am confident that I will overcome and be better for the experience.”
Changing your thoughts and words will prevent you from becoming paralyzed by the situation.