Once Scot and I were at a small social gathering when someone we considered a friend arrived. We greeted him warmly, but he did not respond in kind. Instead, he was stiff and wouldn’t speak to us, obviously leaving the room because we were there. He made it very clear that he not only didn’t want to engage with us, but that he pointedly tended to snub us altogether.
We went on conversing with others as if we didn’t notice, but our feelings were hurt. Though it was a small moment, we felt stabbed and wounded. At last when it was time to leave and we were in the car alone, we were bursting with things to say to each other that we had held back for an hour.
“Did you see that?” we asked. “Was that cold shoulder specifically pointed at us?” We both had seen it. We both felt it. Our first question was, “What have we done to make this person mad at us?” Then finding nothing that we could think of, our question turned to an angry statement, fueled by a sense of injustice. “We have done nothing to make this person mad at us.”
Hurt turned to dismay and then to a sense of having been rebuked for no reason. We really hadn’t deserved this treatment, and we began to express our pain in that safe place that is a marriage.
Then a very important thing happened that I have remembered ever since. We said, “Let’s stop this. Let’s complain no more about this—even to each other. Let’s not repeat the story to horribilize this other person and somehow comfort ourselves. This ends here.”
And so we did. We changed the topic for our ride home—and we never thought about that moment and that offense again. We decided to frankly forgive that person and not give that offense power in our lives. What I remember most about that evening is how beautiful the stars were as we drove home.
Giving an Offense Air Time
Small tiffs and little offenses are part of life. We are like those Dodge’em rides at amusement parks—cars that careen a bit and occasionally bump into each other. How can I offend thee? Let me count the ways.
Hardly anyone gives us as much deferential treatment as we wish they did. Often our best efforts go unnoticed. People misread our motives. They think we are mad when we are only depressed. People leave us out of conversations and lunch gatherings. Some people are proud and they want to make us feel small. We don’t like the way people think or the way they do things.
If this is true with friends and strangers, how much more does it happen in this tight, little laboratory of life called a family? With the constant buffeting against each other through the winds of life, offenses come—large and small. We can be irritated with our place in the family, irritated about who makes decisions and what they are, irritated by the tone someone takes toward us.
Ironically, we can find ourselves offended because someone else is always so easily offended. Oh, how uncomfortable it is to be constantly walking on egg shells around each other, worried that someone will take offense.
Isn’t it so difficult to be constantly weighing your words, wondering what might offend someone else? To be continually self-conscious in case you stumble into a land mine?
The challenge in a family is that we fall into patterns with each other and we find we are not dealing with one offense, but who we see as repeat offenders whose tendencies seem particularly designed to bother us.
Yet here is a fundamental truth. Offenses grow and shrink in our minds depending on how much air time we give them. They are like poison ivy. Give it enough food, sunshine and water, and it can grow up to be quite a healthy toxin.
Because some things sting us, it is easy to replay them in our minds. They seem to have their own emotional power that needs to be played out. Again and again an offense can roll around and we can find we develop quite a healthy case against the offender. Somehow, emotionally, it just seems like we have to play it out until that sting goes away.
Often, that stung emotion, too, seems like it will be salved if we tell the story to someone else or if we explode at the offender himself. Ah, now I feel better. That building pressure inside of me has been relieved.
That pressure is worse if somehow the offense seems unjust. We didn’t deserve the treatment we got. We should have had better. That other person is just small, uncaring, neglectful of our feelings and needs.
Of course, the problem with these strident, inner and outer dialogues is that instead of relieving our feelings, they are fueled. The more we replay our narrative about how badly we have been treated, the more it grows.
Here’s the danger. We have given the offense a power it should not have had or ever deserved. We have let it live instead of relegated it to the vast library of long-term storage in our heads where it can die a deserved death.
That night I described earlier when my husband and I were offended, was quickly relegated to its proper spot. We made a mental effort to let it go and give it its proper proportion in our lives. It lost its power to hurt us and also gave us the strength not to demonize our friend. We made a decision and that decision put a lid on what could have been nursed into a little escalating monster. (Maybe he doesn’t like us. Maybe nobody likes us. Maybe we are not likeable. Or maybe he is not likeable and we want nothing to do with him.)
Taking over our Personality
The problem with letting offenses become very big to us is that we are designed to be able to think about only one thing at a time. Our emotions follow our thoughts. It is very difficult to be simultaneously loving and offended, spiritual and angry. Dwell on how offended you are and the Spirit leaves—even when you have been truly offended.
We choose what we think about. We choose where our mind dwells and the thoughts it engages.
We become what we think about, and if we live with a constant complaint because someone or something offends us, we shrink. If we could imagine it visually, it is as if the substance of ourselves is disappearing, intellect and higher emotions fading away, heart slowing down and what is left is a complaint. We have been reduced to a whine. We have been offended and hurt, and there we can be stuck.
You can feel when people have chips on their shoulders. You are not drawn to those who live their lives as if they have been particularly put upon.
What’s worse is being offended can become a habit. “I am always left out.” “No one considers my feelings.” “I never got my proper due in life.”
You don’t have to look very hard for offense to find it. It’s one of life’s constants. Offense is available. It’s free. It’s close as the people you live with. And frankly, it can become the filter through which you view a relationship or another person or an institution. I was offended. I am offended. I will be offended tomorrow.
This is not a blessed state to live in. It causes you pain. It is heavy. It is destructive to families and relationships.
I am not speaking here of heavy offenses, which would be the subject of a different article, but the small irritants and tiffs of every day life. We do not have to draw them with us like cloak.
The Lord reminds us, “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10). He asks us this because we are the contracted and anguished when we won’t forgive. This is as true for the tiffs and little offenses as it is for the big ones. You don’t need to be brought down by a big thing, when a little thing will do.
Sometimes we hold onto grudges thinking that somehow we are making the other person who offended us pay. In reality, it is only ourselves who pay. A friend of mine said that a priesthood leader had offended him, “So I didn’t go the temple for ten years. I guess that showed him.”
How Do We Do Better?
Often when people offend us, it is because they have wittingly—or unwittingly—stumbled on an area where we are insecure. The problem is really not the offense that was given—which we can’t control—but the state of our soul—which we can do something about.
We can decide that everyone’s job in life is not to validate our worth or say what we hope they will say to us.
We can understand that everyone will not agree with even our dearest point of view.
We can know that people don’t automatically understand where we are sensitive and that they can’t read our minds.
We can be wary of our own thin skin.
We can know that everyone has their own life story that is dramatic and compelling and their response to us may not be about us. In fact, it is probably rarely about us.
We can forgive and then forgive again, and then forgive again.
Ultimately, we can take our sorrows to the Lord, let him heal us and make us whole for another rough and tumble day in mortality.
With the Lord’s help, we can truly move to the point where we learn to be slow to take offense.
Our granddaughter, Madison, gave us a great suggestion. One night she was in the car with us when a driver came speeding through a red light, nearly hitting us. Of course our response was immediate and emotional because we were frightened. I think I gently suggested, “You idiot!”
She said her teacher had taught her that when someone does something you don’t like, always give them three “what if’s.” She changed the mood immediately with her sunny idea. We went on and on. “What if the driver’s wife is in labor and she is just delivering the baby?” “What if he has lost his brakes?” “What if his glasses fell off and he couldn’t see the light?” We went on and on, just laughing.
I am not suggesting here that we ignore things that need to be addressed, but that we go a little easy on other mortals who are as flawed as we are and don’t always say and do things perfectly. We take into account their frantic lives and their hidden pains and their lost dreams and insecurities. And we do that, not just for them, but for ourselves, who don’t need to carry one more burden than we already do.
It is not worth carrying a pain we could let go of with the Lord’s help. It’s not impossible to make a decision—especially in the small things—to just let go of offense.