June 12, 2014

Letting go of bitterness : Lessons from Maya Angelou

The great Dr. Maya Angelou passed away last month. Though her passing is a loss to all of us, I am thankful we have such a large body of written work and interviews so that we can glean from her life experiences, her mistakes, and her wisdom. Dr. Angelou speaks with a fluid elegance and authority that makes people stop and listen. It was riveting to watch her interview with Dave Chappelle from the Sundance show Iconoclasts.

One of the quotes that really stuck with me was her discussion of anger and bitterness. Dave Chappelle was asking her about her experience with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's.  Angelou was involved with the movement and was friends with people like Dr.Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X.  Chappelle asked her something to the effect of how can you not be angry when there was so much unwarranted violence against your friends? This was her response:

“You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.” – Maya Angelou

You can start the video of the interview around minute 5:15 to hear the rest of the conversation about anger and bitterness.

There are times when you have every right to be angry. I spoke with a client yesterday who is struggling with forgiving her biological mom. Her biological mom gave her up for adoption as a baby. As an adult, my client tried to initiate a relationship with her mom. But, the relationship stalled out time after time because her mom would rarely treat her well. Ultimately, my client decided to end all communication, but she still feels eaten up with resentment and bitterness. 

The challenge for all of us is to learn to let go of the bitterness. There are so many outlets we can use to channel the bitter cancer out of ourselves. As an artist, Angelou found it cathartic to use her gift of writing to deal with bitterness. Think about the ways you can let go of your bitterness. It may involve talking it out with a friend or therapist, going for a long walk, praying and meditating, painting your feelings, or some other creative outlet.  Find your outlet and you can begin to feel the lightness and relief that come with having the courage to forgive.

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