The Bitter Itch

I have one known allergy, and that is poison oak/ivy. I discovered this in high school when I unknowingly came into contact with it for the first time. I say “unknowingly” because I myself didn’t wander around in a patch of it. My brother did, and my forearm must’ve had some direct contact with him or his clothes.

My brother remained unscathed while my arm, or rather an almost perfect oval on my arm, looked like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. I expressed my concern to my mom, who drove me to the doctor’s office where we found out that in addition to my charisma, my temper, and my green eyes, I also inherited my allergy to poison ivy from my dad.

It now seems remarkable to me that I went so long without knowing this because this problem has occurred twice since then. Both of those times were in the summer after I’d been outside, so I initially thought the itchiness was caused by bug bites. Both times it wasn’t on my arms, but my legs. It wasn’t until it spread widely that I realized what it was.

I’m almost positive that out of everyone reading this, at least one of you is sitting there thinking, “But Carrie, why did you scratch that itch?”

Because when I initially scratched it, I didn’t know it would spread and it felt good. It felt relieving. By the time I knew it would spread, I would still scratch at times just to get relief. At those times, I didn’t care if it spread, if it reopened wounds, because I was miserable. I was physically and mentally irritated all the time. I would catch myself scratching my leg in my sleep by rubbing it along my sheets and along the edge of the mattress. When watching TV in the living room, I would discreetly run my leg over the edge of the recliner ottoman, which was covered in a blanket or towel to prevent anyone else from being contaminated. To others, it may seem like a rare form of self-torture, and thinking in the long-term, perhaps those people are right. But to me, those moments of rubbing and scratching bordered on ecstasy because in those moments, I felt so much better.

That sounds to me a lot like how we treat our bitterness.

We carry around this bitterness, and maybe at first we don’t recognize it for what it actually is. We just know that we tend to be sort of negative at times, and we vent a lot, often about the same things. That venting and that mindset give us an odd sense of relief. Yes, it’s fleeting, but it’s something. And that bitterness spreads. Maybe we realize it, but mostly, we don’t. And if we do, we usually don’t care. Misery loves company, right? In our bitterness, we don’t care that we hurt others and make them bitter. Or maybe we scratch our itch and others join in and scratch their itches, and eventually, the only thing that comes of it is more open wounds and itchiness, not a resolution. Yes, it’s fleeting, and no, we don’t care. And man, doesn’t it feel good in that one, small moment!

A great example of everyone scratching that bitter itch at once is when someone says they’ve had a bad day and those around this person immediately try to one-up them. This is one of the most annoying things on the planet to me. Here we have this person who’s in need of a pick-me-up. He or she could just be bummed out or he or she could just be sobbing and forming inaudible words. Regardless of how upset this person is, he or she could certainly be doing better. And instead of everyone trying to make this sad soul feel better, they all try to make themselves feel better by entering a competition to see who can get the most sympathy by complaining and going on and on about how much worse they have it than everyone else.

“Well, you’ll never guess what happened to me today.”
“Yeah, my bad day started with a headache right when I woke up.”
“This jerk on the drive to work…”
“My boss was nagging me…”
“My girlfriend was nagging me…”
“My mom called to tell me…”
“My professor told me after class…”
Well, this…
Well, that…

Well, stop! By no means am I belittling whatever you’re going through. I’m sure it’s a great deal. Everyone’s fighting something. And I’m not saying you’re not entitled to a bad day because you most certainly are. You’re entitled to talk about it and to want and get sympathy for it. You can have a bad day on the same day your friend has a bad day, but you shouldn’t turn it into a competition and make your friend feel even worse. That’s bitterness breeding bitterness.

One day in my junior year of college, my best friend and I both had a terrible day. It was awful. We talked on the phone around noon and discussed how bad our days were and decided to actively make our days better. We decided instead of being miserable together that we were going to have fun together. When my friend got out of class, we went bowling. Then we went to Roses and goofed off, trying on funny hats and sitting on the patio and lawn furniture. Would you believe that when I think of that day, I don’t think of how bad it started out but about how much fun it ended up being?

I could’ve been grumpy and bitter. My day was bad because the dream I had right before I woke up was one where my dad was still alive. Then I woke up in a world where he wasn’t. And I wanted to be at home, but I couldn’t. I could’ve spent all day scratching that itch. Instead of scratching, I found a remedy.

A lot of people think the remedy is revenge, but it’s not.

“Revenge” is such an angry word, and it suits the bitter because anger births bitterness. Phonetically, it’s violent and aggressive due to the “r,” “v,” and “g.” In the literary world, the repeated use of such sounds is called a cacophony. Cacophony is discording, clamorous sounds. It’s the opposite of euphony, which is pleasing sounds. In addition, “revenge” has a very dark connotation. When we hear it, we know there’s hurt and that there’s going to be more hurt. We know that hate or pain or bitterness will not only multiply, but also cycle.

We think revenge will cure our itch, but it’s really just a long, elaborate scratch. The relief you feel isn’t permanent; it too will pass. The guilt you feel, however, has a stronger staying power. Basically, you’ll end up with even more bitterness and, more than likely, some guilt as well. Not a pretty picture, is it?

In Romans 12:14-21 (NRSV), Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

When I was a kid and my brother tormented me and my parents found out, it was fantastic. I watched the scolding and the punishment. The justice felt great coming from a higher power.

Things were less great when I tried to give out my own justice. It didn’t seem to feel as good, and I got in just as much trouble as my brother did.

Imagine those scenarios on a much grander scale, and that’s what Paul’s talking about.

If you want to be avenged, leave it to the God who is most powerful and all-knowing. If you want to make someone mad, show love when your first reaction is to show hate.

When I was a teenager, I wore a Duke shirt after every basketball game. Every single one, win or lose. It was an act to show that I still supported my team. When I did it after they lost, the ceremony of it all meant more to me. I didn’t even think about what it would mean to others.

As it turns out, it made those who hated Duke mad.

They would talk about missed shots and missed opportunities, a lagging pace and a lacking defense. Their voices would actually rise and sometimes they would become rather animated. Meanwhile, I defended my team – stats, facts, rematches, whatever was in my arsenal – and visibly showed pure adoration for whom the score of the game called losers.

In a weird way, it’s similar to what Paul’s saying. Instead of our kindness or niceties showing devotion to a team, it shows devotion to our God who told us to love everyone.

We think if we don’t seek revenge, that makes us a doormat and everyone can just step all over us. That’s not what it is at all. There’s a difference between being assertive and being aggressive. Our aim in being assertive is to defend ourselves. Our aim in being aggressive is to hurt people. By not seeking revenge, you’re not being a doormat. You’re simply leaving it up to a God who knows what He’s doing.

No one’s a stranger to bitterness. We all have it at some point or another. It’s an itch we all love to scratch. It brings a relief we crave no matter how temporary. Revenge will relieve it, not remedy it, and eventually the bitterness will return with a vengeance of its own. The true cure is to love despite our pain and leave the rest in God’s hands. After all, His hands have the cure for everything.

By Carrie Prevette

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