We only become bitter when we don't connect with others

by Annelise Mitchell December 08, 2016

We only become bitter when we don't connect with others

There is a poem that I want to share with you that I first read in my early days of university. It revealed to me the importance of learning.

I’m not talking about the institutional form of learning, like schools and universities, but more about the original meaning of education from the Latin word educere – to nourish, to rear and bring forth what is within ourselves.

This bringing forth what is within is the key purpose of learning. We learn who we are and live our life in alignment with our true selves.

For it is only when we realise who we are and what we stand for, can we enter into a process that is truly remarkable and even magical.

When we don’t learn how to connect with this inner voice, and we feel wronged by life’s circumstances, we can enter the dark side of human nature. A cycle of self-destruction that turns us into the beast of Stephen Crane’s poem “The Heart.”

Stephen Crane's The Heart

Surely, only the very few or the very unlucky will be inflicted with such acrimony.

But as we all know, nobody is inflicted with a bitter heart, they merely grow weary from life’s challenges, and eventually fall like this beast in the desert, with only their pain to protect and hold on to.

This can happen to anyone, in any area of life, including the alleged “helping” professions, especially when life does not turn out how one hoped or desired.

They say that every person when they enter a profession will naturally experience this period of disillusionment. A period where there is a vast discrepancy between what they thought a job would be like and the reality. This is a natural process, and often results in the person readjusting to the new reality or finding something that suits them better.

Unfortunately, within many professions, many of these individuals decide to stay, just as many will stay in an unhappy marriage, an unhappy friendship, or in an unhappy life circumstance. They convince themselves that they have no choice but to tolerate their circumstances and endure.

What happens over time is they become like the beast, a broken person who has lost himself in the process of feeding on his own self-pity. This leads to bitterness and the eventual destruction of who he or she could have become.

Now, don’t for a moment imagine that I’m saying that this process will happen to everyone that becomes disillusioned. I’ve worked with the best teachers, in both the high school and tertiary sector. I’ve also worked with many other professions, from IT programmers, administrators and just about every other industry you can imagine.

Many of these people loved their jobs and wouldn’t have it any other way.

It was the people who didn’t love their jobs, or their lives, that struck me as most profound.

They would complain about the system, their family and friends, their lives in general, but when I would suggest that they make changes, they would quickly outline that they had no choice. They are forced into unfavourable circumstances and would have to endure their suffering in silence.

Or they would assure me with equal conviction that it is better the devil you know.

To suffer in silence was one thing but there were moments where I detected that they appeared to take joy in the emotional pain of others.

To take pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, or suffering is revealed by the German word schadenfreude. Where we like to see other’s fall, as if it is levelling the playing field.

How can this be? Surely when we’re suffering we would not wish harm to anyone else, for after all, our pain is too great.

But there is a universal truth about suffering. A person in pain is extremely absorbed in their own pain, and this self-absorption causes them to shut off from others. If they do detect suffering in the world around them, it will only be for a moment and mostly as a comparison to their own pain. It is here that they will revel in the other person’s suffering because even for the briefest of moments, they were not alone in their world of anguish.

To not do this takes exceptional self-awareness about the source of their pain and most people do not go through the process that it takes to reach this level.

They assume that that they have been wronged, that life is unfair and they are merely victims of the whims and motives of others.

Granted, life is unfair.

But we’re only a victim if we believe we are a victim.

We have a choice.

We can choose to subordinate our self to other people. To ideas about how we ought to live. Continue to see ourselves as inferior, less than and then rail against the world for the injustices that we’ve had to endure.

Or we can see how what we have gone through, others have also endured the same or very similar, and through building upon what we have learnt from our suffering, we can create connection with those who want to hear our message.

We can create a product or service that says, “I hear you” and “I’ve been there,” and “Here’s what we’re going to do about it.”

Connection economy by Life-changing Learning

I don’t think bitterness can happen when we feel connected to other people and we are doing activities that reflect our highest values, what we stand for.

It can only happen when we become isolated from other people. We feel separate, and not connected to a whole. We are also submitting ourselves to values that we think are our own but really are the values of parents, authorities and other people that we think are better than us.

This is the real origin of bitterness. Deep underneath the layers of pride and façade, lies the heart of someone who feels incredibly powerless and wronged by the world. They feel like they are on their own desert, an environment devoid of the relationships they need to heal.

I could see how this could easily happen. How all the injustices and perceived wrongs could accumulate to the conclusion that the world is cruel, and that we must do everything in our power to protect ourselves from further pain.

It is very human to fall into this pit of despair. Eating away at one’s heart, until there is nothing left but the shell of a man or a woman.

Somewhere along the line I decided I wasn’t going to live like that. It wasn’t a moment I can pinpoint, as there were so many realisations over time, but with many encounters and experiences I started to see how it was a choice. Bitterness wasn’t inevitable. It wasn’t the end result of going through tragedy, especially extreme wrongs that can truly be an injustice.

I think there is a triumph of the human spirit that enables us to see our connection to others and how by helping others, we help ourselves. If we insist on wallowing in our suffering, we will put ourselves prey to the diseases that seem to plague so many in the 21st century. These “dis-eases” are increasing, and not because of increased understanding of who we are and how we can best live our lives to not only benefit ourselves but most importantly of all, how we can benefit others.

Like the speaker in The Beast, I know the process of eating one’s heart, and although I only touched its bitter reality, I can see how easily one can slip into a life of desolation and debasement, no longer connected to their fellow humans, and merely living out their days for pure self-interest.

I can also see how I have choice of which reality I prefer, and which reflect the types of values that I want to see in the world.

You have that choice too.

Annelise Mitchell
Annelise Mitchell


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