“Why is being bitter such a bad thing?” I ask Rush on one of our regular night walks. Amelia strains her neck into a bush of monkey grass while I continue. “I mean, I don’t recommend it for everyone, but is being bitter a sin?”
We’re fresh off the couch from watching The Normal Heart, the Emmy Award winning, HBO movie about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in America. Written by gay activist Larry Kramer, the largely autobiographical film follows character Ned Weeks as he goes from being a priggish writer to a relentless fighter for what was in 1981 being called “gay cancer.”
It’s Weeks’s fury that lingers with me after the movie ends. First, he’s irate over the medical community’s response (in one scene a gay man has to pay an orderly to help him carry his deceased partner out of the hospital). Then, he lashes out over the government’s silence (the word “AIDS” wasn’t publicly mentioned by President Reagan until 1985 after the deaths of over 5,000 people in the U.S.). So alienating is Weeks’s anger that the volunteer organization he starts – Gay Men’s Health Crisis – eventually separates itself from him in favor of more bridge-building tactics.
Walking along the crooked sidewalks of our neighbor, I reflect on the fact that his anger looks almost nothing like mine. Mine is slow, self-doubting. It comes in uncertain bursts that die just as soon as they are released, a result of Christian guilt as much as Christian discipline. His anger is extreme, uncompromising. There are countless incidents in which people ask him to soften and he refuses to give up the one thing that sustains him. His own brother pleads, “Isn’t it enough that I love you? Agreeing you were born just the same as I isn’t going to save your dying friends,” to which Weeks responds, “That is exactly what’s going to save my dying friends.” It makes me wonder how often I favor being reasonable over being righteous.
What we do share in common is bitterness, anger’s older sister, the sometimes silent sufferer, the one who can’t help but remember a history of wrongs. Bitterness, I’ve been told, is to be avoided by Christian feminists who must wrest themselves from the reputation of both angry activists and fuming fundamentalists. “But who hasn’t experienced the bitterness of anger long-suffered? Isn’t bitterness just another word for heartache?” I ask Rush as we come up the brick stairs of our home and in from the dark. I hang up Amelia’s leash on the back of the door and we go to bed without more words.
The next morning, it’s the words of Hezekiah that give me my answer. I’m on the back porch, playing Bible roulette. I land in the thirty-eighth chapter of Isaiah whereupon the life of King Hezekiah is coming to an end. A prophesy from the Lord has sealed his fate and now he prays for a reprieve. In fact, the NRSV version says, he weeps bitterly. The Lord answers him by saying, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life.” Hezekiah responds in a psalm of thanksgiving, “Surely, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness.”
I blink once, then twice, stupefied by the plainness of his words. Was it true that “great bitterness” could actually be for my welfare? Elsewhere throughout Scripture, bitterness is described as a curse, something rotten, a plague. The clue to Hezekiah’s bitterness is found in vs. 3 when he reminds God that he has walked in faithfulness with a “whole heart.” His bitterness did not cause his heart to decay but instead gave him the strength he needed to fight. He prayed. He begged. He cried out for more life. And God was moved.
I don’t believe bitterness is always bad, but neither do I believe it’s something to seek out. After all, not everything is worth growing bitter over. My prayer to God these days is “Teach me what matters.” Teach me to be reasonable when the slight is small. Teach me to be righteous when the violence is great. As Ned Weeks shows, one man’s bitterness can benefit more than just himself; it can benefit those who are too weak to fight.
In the end, bitterness may not win friends. But maybe, if held with a whole heart, it wins God.