How Can We Let Go of Our Grievances and Find the Happiness Beyond Them?
Recently, my wife Margery and I completed a U-Haul move from Portland, Oregon to Sedona, Arizona. It went smoothly as moves go, and much of the experience was quite pleasant, even joyful at times. Yet various problems came up as they always do on such moves, and I was shocked to see just how easily those problems could wreck my peace of mind. It seemed that the smallest thing would spark a flash of irritation. I got snippy with Margery at times. Even petty things like drivers not using their turn signals got my goat.
I realized that, as A Course in Miracles puts it, I was holding grievances, and this was making me miserable. I applied Course practices to many of them as they arose, and this was helpful. But my propensity for grievances disturbed me, and so after Margery and I arrived safely in Sedona, I resolved to look more closely at what the Course says on this topic. I focused on the Workbook lessons that have “grievances” as a central theme (Lessons 68-69, 71-73, 78, and review lessons 84-86 and 89-90). Fresh off of a disturbing experience of just how thin-skinned I could be, I wanted to learn all I could about the Course’s view of grievances, so I would be more effective in letting them go.
In this article, I would like to share what I learned. What exactly is a grievance? What are the consequences of holding grievances? Most importantly, how can we let grievances go? The answers I found to these questions have helped me become more effective in letting go of my grievances, and experiencing the happiness that lies beyond them. I hope what I share here will be equally helpful for you.
What exactly is a grievance?
We all have a general idea of what the word “grievance” means. We speak of holding a grievance against someone, and everyone knows what we’re talking about. Yet with words the Course uses, it can sometimes be helpful to examine the definition more closely. The Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary defines the word “grievance” as follows:
- a real or imaginary wrong regarded as cause for complaint or resentment.
- a feeling of resentment or hostility arising from a sense of having been wronged.
We see two aspects of the word “grievance” here. First, a grievance is a perceived wrong (note that it may be imaginary), committed against you by someone or something outside you, a wrong that in your mind justifies your complaint and resentment. Second, a grievance is the feeling of resentment that arises from that perceived wrong. In short, a grievance is some external event (definition #1) about which you feel aggrieved (definition #2). A grievance says to the world, “You did something wrong to me, and I’m rightfully upset about it.” (It says this especially to other people—the Course’s material on grievances focuses almost exclusively on grievances against other people.)
If you’re thinking that sounds an awful lot like the ego, you’re absolutely right. According to the Course, “the ego’s plan for salvation centers around holding grievances” (W-pI.71.2:1):
[This plan] maintains that, if someone else spoke or acted differently, if some external circumstance or event were changed, you would be saved. Thus, the source of salvation is constantly perceived as outside yourself. (W-pI.71.2:2-3)
In the very next sentence of the passage just quoted, the Course captures the essence of what we are saying when we hold a grievance: “‘If this were different, I would be saved'” (W-pI.71.2:4). This sentence echoes both of the dictionary definitions above. Wishing that an event were different indicates that we regard that event as a wrong committed against us, a cause for complaint—the first definition of “grievance.” Believing that a different event would “save” us indicates that we believe a different event would not have caused us to feel resentful—the second definition of “grievance.” We don’t normally think of external events as “saving” us, but they seem to do so in the sense of making us feel happy, or at least making us feel better. Thus, a good thumbnail definition of “grievance” might be this: anything that causes us to say, “If this were different, I would feel better.”
I can easily see how this definition applies to the grievances I wrestled with during my move. I definitely thought that if certain external events went the way I wanted, I would have felt better. I was upset when a precarious stack of tightly packed items tumbled out of the back of the truck during loading, when Margery’s parking directions didn’t work, when our cat Chloe disappeared under the motel bed as we were preparing to leave, and when our other cat Alimar urinated on my lap as I held him in the passenger seat. I definitely believed, though I didn’t express it this way, that my salvation depended on changing these externals, that my happiness depended on changing something besides my own mind.
Of course, when do we not think that different external events would make us feel better? Given this definition of grievances, it should be clear that they are not an occasional thing. Rather, they are the very fabric of life in this world. We spend our lives contending with external problems large and small, trying desperately to solve them all. If only we can get all our ducks in a row, we think, we will at last find happiness. But even when things are going relatively smoothly, we are not totally satisfied—even the most pleasant events in our lives come with their own attendant problems. No matter how good we feel, we can virtually always think of things that, if they were changed, would make us feel even better.
What this boils down to is that we spend virtually our entire lives holding grievances. Indeed, the Course says that literally every problem we encounter, at its core, is a grievance (see W-pI.90.1:2), and that we hold grievances against literally everyone (see W-pI.68.5:4). Our earthly lives, in its view, are little more than a long chain of grievances. Sadly, the consequences of holding grievances are devastating, as we will see.
The consequences of holding grievances
Holding grievances is the ego’s way of self-preservation. We hold grievances—as the Course says, we “cherish” them—because we have identified with our egos, and therefore want desperately to fend off the light that would undo them. At one point, the Course calls grievances “a dark shield of hate” (W-pI.78.1:2) that we hold up to block the glorious light that would shine the ego away once and for all. Obviously, going through life cowering behind a dark shield of hate is not a recipe for happiness. Below, we will see some of the painful consequences that come from cherishing grievances.
Holding grievances limits our brothers to their bodies, which limits us to our bodies as well.
Many of the grievances that came up during my move centered on Margery. It’s not that she did anything terribly wrong; she just had the misfortune of being a convenient target when something didn’t go my way. When I reflect on my grievances against her, I have to admit that the following description rings true for them:
Are they not always associated with something a body does? A person says something you do not like. He does something that displeases you. He “betrays” his hostile thoughts in his behavior. (W-pI.72.3:3-6)
This passage makes the point that every grievance, without exception, is focused on a body—especially the body of another person. Even when the grievance is against something like the weather, we’re casting about for someone to blame it on. Things we can’t pin on other people we pin on God, Whom we imagine as having a body of some sort (see T-18.VIII.1:7). This focus on bodies has the unfortunate effect of chaining our brothers and ourselves alike to a bodily identity. Holding grievances thus (seemingly) reduces us all from boundless, eternal Sons of God to limited, mortal bodies. What can this be but painful?
Holding grievances makes the body our savior, which is an attack on God’s plan for salvation.
If we see ourselves as bodies, then the purpose of our lives naturally becomes the care and feeding of our bodies. The grievances that came up for me during my move were all about the care of my body; specifically, the moving of my body and all the other bodies associated with it from Portland to Sedona. In my mind, if only I could accomplish this movement of bodies without incident, I would be happy.
When we see the body as the source of our happiness, we implicitly declare that the body is our savior. This puts us in direct conflict with God’s plan for salvation, a plan that says happiness can only be found beyond the body. God’s plan, we believe, would deprive us of happiness by taking away all the physical goodies that we see as the source of happiness. Since holding grievances is an expression of our commitment to the body as our source of salvation, holding grievances amounts to a declaration of war against God and His plan:
While the body stands at the center of your concept of yourself, you are attacking God’s plan for salvation, and holding your grievances against Him and His creation….Your chosen savior takes His place instead. It is your friend; He is your enemy. (W-pI.72.7:4-6)
How can we find any sort of happiness when we begrudge creation itself, and see God as our mortal enemy? As long as our lives are devoted to attacking God and everything He created, we cannot be anything but miserable.
Holding grievances maintains the fearful, attacking world we see.
Lesson 73 presents us with a fascinating description of how holding grievances maintains our insane world:
Idle wishes and grievances are partners or co-makers in picturing the world you see. The wishes of the ego gave rise to it, and the ego’s need for grievances, which are necessary to maintain it, peoples it with figures that seem to attack you and call for “righteous” judgment. These figures become the middlemen the ego employs to traffic in grievances….
Your will is lost to you in this strange bartering, in which guilt is traded back and forth, and grievances increase with each exchange. (W-pI.73.2:1-3, 3:1)
This applies to all of us, of course, but a stark example of this scenario is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Each side holds long-standing grievances against the other, and sees people on the other side as despicable attackers whose attacks call for righteous anger and vengeance. A Palestinian suicide bomber blows up a bus in Israel, and Israel now has a new grievance. So Israel retaliates with a military assault on a Palestinian city, and now the Palestinians have a new grievance, which leads to more suicide bombers, and so on…
The import of this passage is that in the ego’s view, the real prize in this conflict is not a secure Israel or an independent Palestine, but grievances. Underneath their surface motivations, everyone involved has a hidden need for grievances. So, everyone involved uses the actions of those on the other side as justifications for grievances. The result of all this is the nightmarish situation we see every day on the evening news: a war that never ends, a constantly escalating series of attacks and counterattacks, all justified by “righteous” anger at the “crimes” of the hated enemy.
But the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is just an obvious, extreme example of the dynamic that runs our world every day. As I contemplate my move, I can see the exact same escalating war in the arguments I sometimes had with Margery along the way. We may read about the Middle East crisis in the news and think “those people” are crazy. But if we hold grievances of any kind, however “minor,” we are doing the exact same thing they are. Our grievances are contributing to the maintenance of this insane world of fear and attack. As long as we hold grievances, finding peace in our own lives will be every bit as difficult as finding peace in the Middle East.
Holding grievances hides the light of the world in us.
This is the theme of Lesson 69. Our function is to be the light of the world—to be beacons of forgiveness who shine the light of salvation on everyone we meet. But how can we do this when we are blocking the light with the dark shield of our grievances? How can we bless the world with forgiveness and love when we are stewing with resentment against everyone? Quite simply, we cannot. We cannot be saviors of the world as long as we hide our light under the bushel of our grievances: “Because your grievances are hiding the light of the world in you, everyone stands in darkness, and you beside him” (W-pI.69.1:2).
I can certainly see this when contemplating the grievances I cherished during my move. I felt like anything but the light of the world in those moments, and I certainly wasn’t inspiring Margery with my radiant love. I did feel like I was in darkness. I knew I wasn’t fulfilling my function—I certainly wasn’t being a good Course teacher—and it felt awful. The pain of unfulfilled function is the price we pay for holding grievances. As long as we cherish grievances, we will not assume our role as saviors of the world, the only role that can truly make us happy.
Holding grievances prevents our brothers from saving us.
According to the Course, when we shine the light of salvation on our brothers, it frees them to fulfill their function of saving us. Forgiving them reveals the Christ in them, Who then shines our forgiveness back into our own minds. This process of saving our savior is fundamental to the plan of salvation the Course lays out.
But for this process to work, we need to get it started. Obviously, we’ll never get it started as long as we hold grievances, since grievances are what prevent us from freeing our brothers to save us. I know that when I was holding grievances during my move, Margery and the other people (and cats) I encountered looked like anything but my saviors. On the contrary, it seemed like I needed to be saved from them. In my mind, they were the problem, not the solution.
Therefore, the Course implores us to let go of any grievances that arise in the course of our day, so that each brother we encounter will be free to save us. It appeals to us to “let him be savior unto you today” (W-pI.78.5:5), and “refuse to hide his light behind [your] grievances” (W-pI.78.10:2). If we do not do this, we will remain stuck in darkness. Every time we shield the saving light of our brothers from our eyes, we throw away a precious opportunity for our own salvation.
Holding grievances reverses our entire view of reality, replacing the truth of pure love with illusions of fear and hate.
Perhaps the Course’s best description of the painful consequences of holding grievances is in the first three paragraphs of Lesson 68. I invite you to read those paragraphs yourself, to get an idea of just how destructive grievances really are. The gist is that holding grievances brings about a dramatic reversal in our minds, in which the glorious truth of God’s creation is replaced by nightmarish illusions woven by the ego.
The truth is that “love holds no grievances” (W-pI.68.Heading). Grievances and love are polar opposites. Love, which is God, makes no demands of any kind, and does not contain even the slightest tinge of fear or hate. Moreover, love created us like itself ( W-pI.67.Heading, W-pI.68.1:1. Therefore, our true Self holds no grievances either. It is an eternal, purely loving extension of a purely loving Father. It is one with its loving Source, and does nothing but radiate love to everyone and everything without reservation, just as God does.
When we hold grievances, though, the truth is replaced in our minds by bitter illusions.
Grievances set off a chain of inexorable logic that turns our entire view of reality upside-down. Since grievances and love are opposites, holding grievances is a declaration that we are opposed to love; it is a denial that love created us like itself. This denial blocks our awareness of our true, loving Self that holds no grievances. We now think we are the kind of self that does hold grievances: a vicious, hateful, guilty little ego in a frail body doomed to die. This self-perception is then projected onto God, which blocks our awareness of our true Source, the God of love. We now think that God is a fearful, hateful God Who holds grievances, just as we do; indeed, He holds grievances against us and punishes us with pain and death precisely because we are vicious, hateful, guilty little egos that hold grievances. In our minds, the truth of pure love has been replaced entirely with horrifying illusions of fear and hate.
We may find it hard to believe that such cataclysmic consequences can arise from something as seemingly innocuous as, say, getting upset at a cat who urinates on our lap. But the Course makes it crystal clear that the consequences it describes are not mere hyperbole: “Can all this arise from holding grievances? Oh, yes!” (W-pI.68.2:2-3). Holding grievances facilitates nothing less than the shift from love to fear that is the essence of the separation. Holding grievances keeps the entire ego thought system in place. No wonder holding grievances is the ego’s plan for salvation!
How to let go of grievances
Ultimately, the way to let go of grievances is simply to let go of grievances. We need to lay down that dark shield of hate. Grievances are not caused in any way by the outside world; they are a decision in our minds, and our minds have the power to unmake that decision at any time. The reason we have such difficulty giving up grievances is not that it is truly difficult, but that we cherish them so much. Identifying with the ego, we believe they get us something we want—in particular, all those external things we think will make us feel better—and this seems to make grievances worth holding onto.
Therefore, the primary means the Course uses to help us let go of grievances is by increasing our motivation to do so. It does this in two main ways. One way is by showing us the negative consequences of holding onto grievances, as we’ve just seen. At the end of Lesson 68’s grim litany of the horrors of grievances, it asks the pointed question, “Would you not be willing to relinquish your grievances if you believed all this were so?” (W-pI.68.4:1). Lesson 73 speaks in a similar vein, saying that “the barrier of grievances is easily passed….[and] the reason is very simple. Do you really want to be in hell?” (W-pI.73.5:5-7). If we see the true cost of holding grievances, giving them up will be no problem. Once we look at the pain of our grievances honestly, giving them up will be no harder than giving up banging ourselves on the head with a hammer.
The other way the Course motivates us is by showing us the positive benefits of letting go of grievances. As part of this positive approach, the Course gives us practices aimed at facilitating brief experiences of the joy that comes from giving up grievances. Jesus understands that giving up grievances seems like a tall order for us, but he assures us that seeing the benefits will make the task easy. If we catch even the briefest glimpse of the radiant happiness that lies on the other side of grievances, he promises that “there will never be a problem in motivation ever again” (W-pI.68.4:5).
Here are a few of the Course’s positive ways of letting go of grievances—ways in which we can experience the joyous, liberating truth that lies beyond the prison of resentment.
We let go of grievances by seeking and finding the light of the world in us.
This is Lesson 69’s antidote to the problem of hiding our light under the bushel of our grievances. If the problem is hiding our light, the obvious solution is seeking and finding it again. Once we find it, the light of the world in us can shine forth for all to see—and we will be happy, because we will be fulfilling our true function at last.
This is exactly what Lesson 69 helps us do. It presents a picture of the mind as a great circle of radiant light deep within us. This light would save the world if we let it shine forth from us. However, we cannot see the light, because it is obscured by the “clouds” of our grievances. To remedy this situation, the lesson gives us a meditation practice in which we sink past the clouds of grievances and reconnect with the light at the heart of our being. We are also given a practice line to be used throughout the day, to help us keep that light in awareness:
My grievances hide the light of the world in me. I cannot see what I have hidden. Yet I want to let it be revealed to me, for my salvation and the salvation of the world. (W-pI.69.9:4-6)
We let go of grievances by forgiving our brothers—by letting our grievances be replaced by miracles.
“Grievance” is just another word for unforgiveness, and forgiveness is the obvious remedy for unforgiveness. The Course offers us countless forgiveness practices to choose from. Indeed, two of the “grievances” lessons, Lessons 68 and 78, offer us practices for forgiving specific people. It is forgiveness that lifts the clouds of grievances from our minds, and allows us to see the sunlight of God’s Love shining upon the world once more: “Forgiveness lifts the darkness [of grievances], reasserts your will, and lets you look upon a world of light” (W-pI.73.5:4).
The choice to forgive our brothers reveals to us the Course’s alternative to grievances: miracles. This is the theme of Lesson 78, the lesson where that reference to the dark shield occurs. We are told that miracles await us in the light of truth, but that they are currently obscured by our grievances: “Each grievance stands like a dark shield of hate before the miracle it would conceal” (W-pI.78.1:2). We are then given a practice in which we set our grievances aside to reveal the miracles that were obscured by them.
As I already mentioned, Lesson 78’s practice is a practice in forgiving a specific person. The way we reveal the miracles obscured by our grievances is to “lay [the shield of hate] down and gently lift our eyes in silence to behold the Son of God” (W-pI.78.2:3). We seek a vision of the Son of God in this person against whom we are holding grievances, a vision which will allow her to be our savior.
Forgiveness is the way to let go of grievances. It is the shining path to the boundless happiness that lies beyond. Through forgiveness of the grievances we hold against our brothers, literally all of the problems we face in our lives are shined away by the limitless power of the miracle:
The problem is a grievance; the solution is a miracle. And I invite the solution to come to me through my forgiveness of the grievance, and my welcome of the miracle that takes its place. (W-pI.90.1:5-6)
How can we live life without grievances?
Virtually everything we do in life involves manipulating external things to bring about a more pleasant, comfortable, and positive state of affairs. Certainly that was my primary activity during my move to Sedona. Given the pervasiveness of this activity, how can we possibly give up grievances completely? Does giving up all grievances mean never doing anything to make ourselves more comfortable, or make the world a more livable place? Does it mean that we should never turn on the air conditioner when we’re hot, ask someone to turn the Led Zeppelin down when we’re trying to meditate, or vote for the presidential candidate we believe will be best for our country and the world?
I don’t think so. The Course isn’t asking us to give up doing things that improve external situations. Rather, it is asking us not to see improved external situations as salvation , as the source of our happiness. Grievances arise only when we rely on externals for our happiness instead of relying on God. Trying to give up the outward behavior of improving externals without changing our minds about the source of our happiness is actually another form of trying to find salvation in externals. Giving up grievances isn’t about giving up particular behaviors. It is about a change of mind.
How, then, can we live life without grievances? The Course’s prescription for our daily lives is to turn them over to the Holy Spirit. He will guide us in how to perceive the events, situations, and people in our lives, and He will also give us detailed instructions about what to do. Under His guidance, we will still undoubtedly do all sorts of things that improve external situations, but we will also recognize that these improvements are not the real source of our happiness. Under His tutelage, we will see our lives in a whole new way. Rather than “How can I rearrange external things so I can feel better?” the focus of our lives will become “How can I perceive what happens to me through the Holy Spirit’s eyes, and act in a way that will best serve His plan?” We can live life without grievances to the degree that we devote ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s plan for salvation.
An exercise in letting go of grievances
I want to conclude with the following exercise, which is based mainly on the practices of Lessons 68 and 78. (I sure wish I’d had this exercise during my move!)
Letting Go of Grievances
Bring to mind a person against whom you currently hold a grievance—someone other than yourself. Hold the person and the grievance in your mind. Review the situation in which the grievance arose: how it got started, what happened, the aftermath, and anything else that comes to mind. Get in touch with everything associated with this grievance, as clearly as you can.
How does this situation make you feel? Underneath whatever surface feelings of triumph or satisfied self-righteousness you may have, does holding this grievance really make you happy? See if you can get in touch with the pain this grievance is causing you. “Do you really want to be in hell?” (W-pI.73.5:7). Hell is the actual consequence of holding this grievance, however much you may think it gets you something you want.
The only way out of hell is to let go of your grievance against this person, your brother. You must lay down the dark shield of hate you are holding up to block the light of Christ in him from your sight. So, with the Holy Spirit’s help, open your mind and be willing to lay down your shield. Be willing to see this brother as something other than an enemy who has unfairly wronged you. Say to your brother:
I would see you as my friend, that I may remember you are part of me and come to know myself. (W-pI.68.6:3)
If you are tempted to hold on to the grievance and continue to see your brother as your enemy, remind yourself that grievances prevent you from seeing the holy, loving Self that is your true Identity. Say:
Love holds no grievances. Let me not betray my Self. (W-pI.68.7:2-3)
Remembering that your only hope of happiness is to extend love from the purely loving Self that you and your brother share, determine now to see the miracle that was concealed by the dark shield of hate. Determine now to let the miracle of forgiveness shine away the grievance you are holding against your brother. Say to him:
Let our grievances be replaced by miracles, [name]. (W-pI.89.4:3)
Allow the miracle of forgiveness to gently transform your perception of your brother, so that where before you saw a guilty sinner who unfairly wronged you, you now see the holy Son of God. You thought you needed to be saved from him, but in truth he is your savior. This is all you really want to see in him. Say, then, to the Holy Spirit:
Let me behold my savior in this one
You have appointed as the one for me
to ask to lead me to the holy light
in which he stands, that I may join with him. (W-pI.78.7:3)
Join with your brother in the holy light. Rejoice in the vision of your brother as your savior. “He who was enemy is [Now] more than friend” (W-pI.78.5:5) to you. As you bask in this beatific vision of your holy brother, let yourself experience the limitless peace, freedom, safety, and happiness this vision offers. Feel the boundless love streaming from you to your brother, and from him to you. No pain can beset you in this holy light. No harm can come to you here. Only happiness is here. This is what it feels like to be free of grievances. This is how every moment of your life can be. To conclude, remind yourself once more of the peace and happiness that is yours when you let go of your grievances:
Love holds no grievances. When I let all my grievances go I will know I am perfectly safe. (W-pI.68.6:8-9)
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
If you enjoyed this article, you might like this one!
To learn more about our community of A Course in Miracles students, visit Course Companions.