This poem by Ben Downing appeared in the July/August 2012 print edition of The Atlantic. By means of simple couplets and just four uncomplicated sentences, it communicates a home truth: “[umbrage] makes us less”.
UmbrageTaken, given: friendships riven.
From shadow or shade,
it instantly puts paid
to hard-won clarities
and causes us to freeze
up with unearned righteousness;
it makes us less.
How much better to combat it.
We should take umbrage at it.
There is a quotation lately attributed to Benedict Arnold, the war hero-turned-traitor of the American Revolution: If your great umbrage would care to meet my high dudgeon at 12 paces, I would be happy to entertain you at dawn. I haven’t been able to confirm the quote or to find any context for it; in fact, it appears to have originated in a History Channel film. Be that as it may, it is a wonderful example of where taking umbrage can lead – not to resolution of problems, but to “friendships riven”.
You know those people who take everything personally? I used to be one of them, and let me tell you – it is a painful way to live. I spent hours – days! – feeling hurt, angry, frustrated. I was paralyzed, chewing over what I should have said, imagining what people thought of me, planning how I would get back at them. (I never did.) In other words, I was blocked. There was no way to move forward while I sat wallowing in so much powerful negativity.
Eventually, I worked that out and realized that I had to start taking responsibility for my feelings. The self-help world is full of pithy sayings to this end. What people think of you is none of your business. When people insult you, it says more about them than about you. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Feeling resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I decided to quit worrying about the others and to make my life as good as I possibly could. I never looked back.
Of course, I still get angry sometimes. I can still feel hurt by an inconsiderate remark. I still react with pain to insults. The difference, I think, is in the duration and in what I do with the feeling. These days I can usually realize how I’m feeling, understand why I feel that way, make a decision where to go with it. Sometimes I have to look at myself and deal with the truth in hurtful words, change myself. Sometimes I can laugh off the insult as being based in the other person’s inner world.
Sometimes they really hit on a sensitive point and it’s not so easy to move on, but I do my best to get over it with the resources I have at my disposal. It’s not always quickly accomplished, but it’s always the goal. You know the saying “Living well is the best revenge”? That’s not the reason I work on myself and try to become a better person, but as a side effect it’s not entirely unwelcome.