Letting Bitterness Go

burtTraditionally, King Solomon has been regarded as the primary author of three books of the Old Testament. Some interpreters say he wrote Song of Songs while he was a lusty, young man (a book that should carry a PG-13 rating). In mid-life, he collected his Proverbs, moving on to less sensual and more substantial work.

Late in life, as the interpretive theory goes, Solomon looked back over his past, contemplated his eventual demise, and collapsed into the futility that is the book of Ecclesiastes. “Everything is meaningless!” is his forlorn lament. Why did he arrive at such hopelessness?

In part, Solomon can’t bear leaving his accomplishments behind. He’s angry that other people will succeed without working as hard as he did. And the coup de gras: His wealth will be left to those who will not do with it what he wants. This was more than he could take.

Another such person was Wellington Burt. One of the wealthiest men in the world a century ago, Burt was a lumber baron who made a fortune from Michigan timber. He was hardworking, ruthless, of thorny disposition, and impossible to live with; his aptly earned nickname was “The Lone Pine of Michigan.”

Burt’s descendants gathered to open his will after his death. Outside of a tiny stipend to be shared by his heirs, they painfully discovered that they had been excluded. In what is known as “the spite clause,” his final instructions were that his estate be disbursed “twenty-one years after the death of my last surviving child or grandchild.”

Burt’s last grandchild lived until 1989, triggering the twenty-one-year clause. Only then, decades later, was the estate liquidated. Twelve distant descendants received their postponed inheritances, none of them having known their great-grandfather.

What a miserable way to come to the end of life! And one can arrive at that juncture as a rich, eccentric lumber baron, as a day laborer, an engineer or blue-collar worker, a privileged, middle-class couple; or as a pessimistic, ancient king. It’s easy to allow a grudge – whatever its source – to poison us.

Thus, refusing to grant an inheritance is merely symptomatic. Gone also is the ability to grant forgiveness, to feel compassion, to love, or seek reconciliation. Sitting, souring, and sulking, the “root of bitterness” overtakes the heart like a kudzu vine, choking out light and life.

What is the solution? Well, old King Solomon, even in his despondency, had the answer. “There is a time for every purpose under the heaven,” he also wrote in Ecclesiastes, and of those times, “There is a time to keep – and there is a time to let go.”

No one can control the future while alive, much less from the grave. So, holding on and hanging on for the express purpose of harming someone else, or attempting to even some unsettled score is the real expression of “meaningless.” The only thing it accomplishes is killing the soul long before the body dies.

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