The half-life of a grievance

The half-life of a grievance

Every now and then, an old grievance comes to mind. There’s one about a guy who accused me of something I didn’t do, and whenever his name comes up, the grievance is right behind. Sometimes from out of nowhere the grievance enter’s the spotlight of my mind and a variation of the incident replays —one where I say something witty or clever and win the day. Sometimes the spotlight is on a completely invented future scene of me and my transgressor where I vanquish him in verbal combat.

In those moments I might find myself speaking out loud my victorious part, as my imaginary self turns and walks away with the bad guy’s house blowing up … in slow motion … only to have my girlfriend break my bubble by asking, “Who are you talking to?” “Oh, just rehearsing a speech dear,” I’d say, embarrassed.

Hot flashes

I don’t know how long these flashbacks or flash forwards take (flashes I’ll call them), but they add up in time, emotional and creative energy lost. I notice that the flashes often come with a vengeful thirst that never leaves me quenched, just agitated, and it’s a pattern that repeats itself for every grievance I have. In the hours and days after I’ve been “wronged” flashes occupy my mind, like a computer process using up the CPU with the fan spinning full speed. In those moments, I’m consumed, gripped by what I should have done and what I could do to avenge myself.

I get a perverse pleasure in indulging my flashes because they allow me to dominate, win and especially to punish the person who wronged me, but I’m clear that it’s a form of suffering, at least of wasted time and energy.

With time, the flashes diminish in frequency and duration, and with a lot of time they eventually lose most of their charge, even though they never seem to completely go away.

The half-life of a grievance

This gradual lessening of anger and hurt over time reminds me of a phenomenon in physics called ‘half-life’ which describes the length of time radioactive material takes to decay or breakdown by 50% of it’s original state.

One hundred grams of a radioactive material with a half-life of 1 year will decay to 50 grams after one year, and by year two will only be 25 grams,and so on.

The rate at which grievances gradually diminish over time and never disappear completely is like this half-life phenomenon.

Measured in flashes, if a grievance had a halt-life of one year, then one year after the incident-forming grievance you would experience half the flashes that you did in the first week after the incident; two years after you might experience only a quarter.

Now this is only an analogy and it doesn’t matter that we could never precisely measure those flashes over time. What matters is it describes a natural reduction in the suffering we experience from most grievances.

Long half-life bad

The main point is that if your grievances carry long half-lives then that’s bad. It means you suffer and hold grudges for very long, and the question becomes: is this due to the nature of your grievance, i.e. is it inherently true that particularly bad offences e.g. infidelity, wrongful imprisonment, murder of a loved one etc., come with longer half-lives than minor grievances eg a personal insult, being cut-off or ignored?

It seems not.

Many people carry minor grievances for a lifetime, while others, the Amish for example, seem adept at quickly forgiving the most horrific crimes. So the half-life of a grievance cannot be dependent on the nature of a grievance. Instead there is something about how we treat a grievance that affects its half-life; which means there is something we can do to reduce the half-life (or life span) of a grievance from months or years to days or even hours. What is it about a grievance that determines it’s half-life?

Your story

The half-life of any grievance suffering depends on the story you tell yourself about what happened, and you do tell yourself a story. Every time you indulge a flash you tell yourself a story of your beliefs and judgments about what happened. Your story is bigger than what actually happened because it contains all of your unmet expectations, judgments and beliefs. It’s also limited to a specific time frame which likely only includes the exact start and end time of the incident, and not what may or may not have occurred for each actor in the moments or years before.

Separating the incident from our story

We were never taught to distinguish an incident, something that happened, from the story we tell about it, and so we come to believe they’re the same thing. We combine the two. Noticing our tendency to do this gives us access to greater truth because it encourages us to widen our prospective, and opens us up to empathy and forgiveness. Creating different stories allow us to separate the incident from our story about it—our grievance.

Try telling a different story

One way to dramatically reduce the half-life of any grievance is to tell a different story about it. This is how the Amish are able to forgive even the most horrendous wrongs. The story they tell themselves about what happened is different fromwhat most people would, and it’s based on their religious belief. Suzanne woods Fisher in The Heart of the Amish: Life Lessons in Peacemaking and Forgiveness believes their story always include some version of ‘the Lord forgives as we forgive.’

How to tell a different story

It may be hard to accept that your grievance story is not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but … but it never is. And if you are suffering because of something that happened to you, it’s important to get that your suffering comes from the story you created about what happened; not what happened.

The key to your release is your willingness to see a different perspective, and to see a different perspective you need a new story.

The way to tell a different story is to do the following:

  1. First tell your reactive story, the story that immediately occurred to you as the truth. This is the story you retell; it is your grievance story.
  2. Identify all of the assumptions, beliefs, and judgments driving your story.
  3. Then change them. Challenge each assumption, each belief, each judgment and ask yourself how things might be different if your “bad guy” had different assumptions and beliefs; if you made different judgments.
  4. Expand the time frame. Go beyond the beginning of the incident and imagine what might have happened that would explain this person’s actions.

The key is to let your creative juices flow and treat this as a creative exercise designed to free you. It is not to discover the truth.

For the grievance I began this article with, I realized the story I created had me believing the “bad guy” was strong and me, weak. He was an ignorant bully and I was a helpless victim. Once I saw my beliefs and judgments in that story I could change them to have me be strong with his accusations becoming only rantings from a guy who felt he was no longer relevant, and who was just venting his own frustrations at me. This new story allowed some empathy for him and freed me from feeling “accused.”

We can all expand our capacities to choose the stories we tell ourselves, to reject the ones that revisit us in flashes that make us feel small, vengeful or afraid, and to invent new ones that allow us to stop feeling like victims. Choosing a different story to tell ourselves is how we can reduce the half-lives of our grievances and increase the fullness of our own lives.

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.