Of the prayers that observant Jews recite each day, the one I appreciate most is offered before going to bed. Here is how it begins:
“Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or sinned against me — whether physically or financially or through disrespect, or in any other matter affecting me; whether involuntarily or willfully, carelessly or deliberately; whether by word or by deed. I forgive every person: Let no one incur punishment because of me.”
One of the rules I try to live by is not to take offense when no offense is intended. A corollary to that rule is to presume, whenever possible, that no offense was intended. This is not, I admit, a discipline I’ve mastered perfectly. But make a daily point of affirming that you harbor no ill will, and you won’t smolder with unresolved umbrage. At a time when Americans by the millions keep themselves in a state of high dudgeon, choosing not to be offended can be wonderfully refreshing.
Not taking offense isn’t the same as not having pet peeves. (I’ve got a bunch of those.) Nor does it mean never condemning shameful or destructive behavior. (Where would newspaper columnists be if we never uttered any criticism?) It does mean recognizing that being offended is always a choice, and that other people’s words can bend you out of shape only if you let them.
This isn’t a column about politics, but during the recent “Hamilton” kerfuffle, Vice President-elect Mike Pence provided a pitch-perfect demonstration of how not to take offense. He didn’t bristle or fume when he was booed by audience members and pointedly addressed by the cast during the curtain call. “I wasn’t offended,” he said afterward. He praised the “great, great show” and the “incredibly talented” cast, and made clear that actor Brandon Dixon’s impassioned statement from the stage didn’t trouble him.
“I nudged my kids,” Pence told Fox News, “and reminded them, ‘That’s what freedom sounds like.’ ”
Unfortunately, picking at scabs has become a national pastime. Americans have lost their ability to shrug off other people’s obnoxious comments or insensitive gestures or politically incorrect views. Instead of rolling their eyes and letting it pass, they proclaim: “I’m offended.” They demand apologies. They insist on “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” They howl about “microaggressions” and whinge about “mansplaining” and compile lists of banned words. When they get offended, they expect heads to roll or companies to be blackballed. They even take offense on behalf of people who don’t take offense.
Remember Frank Costanza? He was the character on “Seinfeld” who invented Festivus, a family holiday commemorated with a dinner, an aluminum pole, feats of strength, and — the high point — an Airing of Grievances. “I got a lot of problems with you people!” bellows Costanza to those at his Festivus table. “And now you’re gonna hear about it!”
It was funny as a sitcom shtick. As a national pastime, perpetual outrage is exhausting and debilitating. America could do with a little less Frank Costanza and a little more Mike Pence.
Waxing wroth when we’re offended may feel temporarily satisfying, but the weight of all those chips on our shoulders does long-term damage. “In my work treating alcoholics,” writes psychiatrist Abraham Twerski, a founder of the renowned Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, there is “great emphasis on divesting oneself of resentments,” since “resentments are probably the single greatest factor responsible for relapse.” Twerski quotes one recovering alcoholic’s insight: “Carrying resentments is like letting someone who you don’t like live inside your head rent-free.” No lasting benefit comes from it, but a lot of misery does.
In a society that thrives on taking offense — just turn on talk radio, or read an online comments section, or follow Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren on Twitter — it can’t be overemphasized that nursing a grievance is always optional. You may not be able to control other people’s opinions, obnoxious jokes, or political loyalties. But you alone determine how you react to them.
Everyone has heard the biblical injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Less well known is the first half of the verse: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge.” That’s excellent counsel, for believers and nonbelievers alike.