“Why are Jews still bitter about the Holocaust? It was over half a century ago; it’s time to move on.”
“You’d have a much better relationship with God if you got over your bitterness and forgave people already.”
Bitterness: a much-feared word in Christian and Jewish circles. This word is used when a consensus is reached that no one should be angry anymore, but if one still has degrees of trauma, bouts of anger, PTSD, or anxiety, it’s clearly a spiritual issue. Worse, it’s a stubborn refusal to grow.
In my experience, “bitterness” is something that takes root in one’s heart when their feelings are patted down with platitudes: “Just pray harder, you’ll feel better.” Bitterness takes root in my heart when my feelings are not being taken seriously.
Need I say that this is incredibly invalidating? This process is called gaslighting, and though it’s not a uniquely fundamentalist problem, it is obscenely prevalent in fundamentalist Christian circles. But I don’t think Christians do this because they don’t care about people who are hurt; I think they do this because many are not well equipped to deal with anger in a healthy way.
I can’t help but think of Jesus furiously tipping those tables on which people exchanged money in the temple, and I can’t help but think, Now that is a Jewish response! That is how you deal with chutzpah! But who would accuse Jesus of being “bitter”? When moral codes were being violated, when underdogs were being mistreated, anger prompted Jesus to act accordingly. But try suggesting in bible study that flipping tables is an appropriate response to the question What Would Jesus Do? and see what happens.
There must be more than one way to “flip a table,” so to speak. Anger by itself is not good or bad. Harvested properly, it could even be a good thing – but how many of us know how to do that?
If I ever figure that one out, I’ll write my next book about it. For right now, the best I can offer is what doesn’t work:
Responding to accusations with accusations. “You’re being bitter”; “Well, you’re just stupid.” Calling someone “stupid” is obviously unproductive, but substituting “ignorant” isn’t very effective, either. That’s another conversation-stopping word that basically says, “You’re telling me I don’t know anything.” The last time I heard someone say Jews are bitter for not “getting over” the Holocaust, as if it were the same inconvenience as a downpour at a picnic, I wish I had said, “Yes, Jews are still bitter, because there is still genocide happening in the world, and there are still people choosing to look the other way. That does make me bitter. It should make everyone bitter.” The accusing person is not being put down, but is hopefully challenged to rethink their approach (obviously, “bitter” is too tame a word to describe completely justified fury over genocide, but if that’s the word being used, I say just work with it).
Revealing the story beneath the label. I am a Christian who is frequently tired of other Christians. I’m worn out when I am asked about the most effective ways to convert Jews, since I have an insider’s perspective. Most of all, I’m exhausted at having to explain the connection between my rape and my feminist identity. It was the rape, the humiliation, and excuses I accepted that made me realize how desperately the world needs this cause. I’m tired of having to explain that I am not a feminist because I want to usurp men, or otherwise don’t value them.
But, I have built bridges with Christians by explaining some of my abusive history – just enough to get my point across, since much of it is intensely personal. This approach yields greater understanding, even if we still end up agreeing to disagree, than flatly spitting, “Quit yapping about something you clearly know nothing about.”
Accepting when someone is simply not ready to talk. It does come across as bitter by forcing a conversation that’s not meant to be had at a particular moment. I have never heard of a successful conversion story, be it to a religion or some other ideology, which involved forcing a viewpoint down someone’s throat, ignoring clear signals that this is not the time. There may not ever be a right time. Save your energy for people who are truly invested in learning. Those are the ones will become your allies.
These suggestions aside, I still have unhealthy bitterness in my heart. I pray not to get rid of it, necessarily, but to mold it into something productive. Some of history’s most successful revolutions grew from bitter unrest about the way things are. Choking down artificial happiness only masks a problem, resulting in – surprise! – harder-to-penetrate bitterness that will inevitably destroy anything it touches. Bottom line: being fake has rarely solved anything, but authenticity has been proven to go a long way.