My uncle Ivan was a deliciously funny and loving man. He adored practical jokes. At a holiday party when I was ten, he convinced me that Danish aquavit, a most bitter and vile liquor, almost 40 % alcohol, and carrying the flavor of herbs, spices and caraway, was just like 7-Up. He said to drink it quickly and it would tickle my throat and make me laugh.
Upon ingesting, I was certain I would die. I so wanted NOT to cry, but I unleashed a torrent rage of tears. I would have killed my uncle if I had the means, but instead I fled to the bathroom to heave up this abominable concoction. I could hear my mother and grandmother scolding Ivan, while my other uncles and older cousins laughed.
The taste of bitter is unforgettable. It is such a shock to the system. Everything in our body winces, our eyes tear, our nose runs, and our stomach goes into a seizing revolt. I tasted aquavit for the remainder of the party, and throughout the next day. Just the thought of it made me gag. I spent many subsequent nights plotting my revenge, but alas, my longing to get even with Ivan came to know no definitive plan or result. He had gotten me good or bad or whatever, and the tale of my slugging down this bitter brew would become a part of family legend.
When bitterness sets in emotionally, or enshrouds us spiritually, it is just as vile as the taste of aquavit at ten years old. Bitterness is usually the result of being betrayed, badly disappointed, treated unfairly, or facing series of jabs to the soul that leave us gasping for air. Bitterness is both a brutal and haunting taste, as well as emitting the putrid smell of something gone bad – both are seriously sour.
All of us have known days of bitterness, when we can’t catch a break, are overwhelmed by hardships, ripped open by doubts that cut a wide swath in our confidence and courage, and we are left hanging by a thread against the wicked winds of Life. Each of us had gone through a span of time when we are caught by a storm which leaves our ship battered and ravaged by raging winds, taking on water and ready to sink.
I believe a good chunk of my faith in Jesus Christ is rooted in his experience and understanding of all the ingredients of bitterness. Being persecuted by family and friends and communities he trusted. Being lied to and betrayed. Having his very existence denied, and being tossed into the hands of seemingly evil fate. Jesus was repeatedly subject to degradation by those who claimed to love him. His bitterness, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?” was a brew made from the most common yet cursed ingredients. It must have broken his heart. and demolished his trust.
Bitterness is a bruising battle. It is hard to keep up one’s energy or excitement or enthusiasm, let alone spirit or soul, when tasting the cruelest Life has to offer – indeed, especially if it emanates from friends. The bruising of our soul leaves us aching and sore, ready to weep, and irritated to the depth of our being. We too wince all over, as if we had been forced to swallow whole lemons. Life can be damn tough, so very difficult, and there are those periods of time when we simply feel like we are enduring a Demolition Derby.
I also have come to suspect that bitterness frequently is transformed into high anxiety – waiting for the bomb to drop. When we grow in our belief that we are the victims of repetitive bad luck, or have been chosen to be the scapegoat, or have a growing suspicion that we simply cannot catch a break, then anxiety has found the crack through which it can gain access to our soul. Anxiety is the fear of everything, and a sense of dread of what may come next. It can be both irrational or totally rational, and usually is a mix of each. Anxiety is fear without an object, while bitterness is the belief if something bad is around the corner, somehow it will find us.
After my uncle Ivan’s horrid and hysterical prank, my Grandmother came up to me with a sugar cube, and told me to suck on it. It did not offer an elimination of the bitter taste in my mouth, but it certainly offered some much needed help. So it is with spiritual or emotional bitterness, we may need a dose of Life’s sweetness: doing our favorite things; getting away from it all; indulging our yearnings and having a few days to do nothing at all; and giving ourselves a free pass in the guilt and shame department. Just as a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down, a swig of happiness or joy, when we can find it, will be of immense relief.
Life’s sweetness is not as hard to find as we think, even from the perspective of a bitter eye. Somehow we know we know where to look, and how to make a few good things happen. It may be nothing more than making a call to a good friend, a hot shower, a long walk, or prayer. Little cubes of goodness can make the difference. The bitterness certainly can remain on the tongue and the memory for quite some time, but it helps knowing we can “suck on a sugar cube or two” when we need to.