Why can’t I stop hating?

I remember a conversation initiated by a widow in her 40s I’ll call Jenny. Jenny was the mother of four sons aged eleven, thirteen, fifteen, and seventeen. Her husband had recently been killed instantly by a drunken driver while he was biking along a country road near town. Jenny said that she and her husband had been life-long “practicin<' Catholics and had done their best to raise their sons in the faith. All indications were that the boys were all turning out well, for which she was deeply grateful. She thought their marriage had been basically good with the normal ups and downs. However she noticed that her husband seemed more emotionally withdrawn after the birth of their youngest son. She figured he was just tired from working extra hours to support their large family. Six years ago, she had discovered that he was having an affair with a younger single mutual friend of theirs. Jenny said she had been devastated by this bomb "out of the blue", but when he promised to break off the affair, she forgave him because of the close mutual relationship between him and their sons. Then, over the years since, she had discovered that he had had periodic "dates" with the other woman a number of times. She said that she had been unwilling to end her and Bill's painful relationship because of how close the boys were to their father. She admitted that he was a wonderful father. So she had focused on their sons, and kept up appearances with Bill as best she could. After her husband's funeral, her long-time simmering resentment and anger with him and her former friend flared up into a real hatred of them both, and was threatening to emotionally consume her. She knew she needed ail her energy focused on raising her sons as a single parent. While not common, it is not that rare that, after the passing of a spouse, people can discover that they are filled with feelings of intense anger or even hatred. They may never to this point have seen themselves as chronically angry persons filled with hatred ("I'm not that kind of person!"), and indeed there may be no personal history of ever before being almost overwhelmed by such intense negative feelings. What is hatred? Broadly considered for the sake of this reflection, hatred is intense anger focused on another person. (There are also self-hatred as well as hated of a group. The first usually requires a trusted counselor or wise friend to help resolve, while the second is usually based on one's personal bias and prejudice, so the present reflection excludes both of these other kinds of hatred.) First of all, hatred is a feeling. Thus, no one decides to hate. Rather, one discovers that one's intense feeling of anger is focused on an individual. There may not even be a conscious or logical basis for one's intense anger, but even if there a clear reason, many conscientious people find it personally disturbing to realize their heart seems to be filled with hatred. The difficulty is that since one's feelings of intense anger or hatred are not chosen, those feelings cannot be directly (by just willing it) eliminated. Unfortunately, hatred in one's heart hinders true inner healing after a personally devastating loss like the passing of one's spouse. There is a popular bit of life-advice: "Forgive and forget!" Is that even humanly possible? Even if one intentionally chooses to forgive the person who is the focus of one's hatred, no one can intentionally erase a memory. Powerful personal memories tend to fade over time, but can still return later with new intensity, and both these possibilities seem to be out of our control. Still, consciously and intentionally choosing to forgive the hated one is the essential first step to opening oneself to true inner healing. In the end, for anyone to truly move on (no matter how slowly) from an extremely painful experience like a spouse's infidelity, one needs to choose to forgive in spite of intense feeling of anger or hatred (which one cannot directly eliminate in any case) fueled by a very painful memory involving the hated person. Many people associate forgiveness with a tranquil peaceful feeling (and believe that they have not truly forgiven someone unless they feel that way.) But forgiveness is not a feeling but rather a decision to forgive in spite of feelings of hurt or anger! To choose to forgive is not equivalent to claiming the terrible hurt (from personal betrayal, for example) doesn't matter! It is not even a matter of assigning blame. The bottom line is this. Unless one consciously chooses to forgive (and indeed at times to re-forgive and re-forgive) the hated person in spite of lingering feelings of hurt, resentment, anger, or hatred, one will continue to be chained to the painful past and its deep wounds of the heart. It is actually possible to truly forgive while not forgetting. Jenny told me that she had believed that since she could never forget her late husband's ongoing infidelity, she did not see how she could ever forgive him and focus her emotional energy on raising their sons as a single parent. She expressed her amazement when I explained to her how the two actions of forgiving and forgiving were not only quite distinct but not even necessarily linked at all! Contrary to what popular life-advice encourages us to do. We ended our conversation on a note of gratitude for the grace of this insight.