Moving beyond bitterness – a lesson from the Birmingham riots

Tariq Jahan - hero peacemaker during the Birmingham riots.

Tariq Jahan’s 21-year-old son Haroon was murdered in Birmingham during last week’s rioting.  Since then he has become an unassuming hero.

His call for calm, despite such personal tragedy, cooled tempers which could have boiled over in his Winson Green neighbourhood.  He said: “Blacks, Asians, whites — we all live in the same community. Why do we have to kill one another? Why are we doing this? Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home — please.”

For anyone harbouring stereotypical views of Muslims as violently intolerant, Mr Jahan has undoubtedly shone a very different and healing light on what it means to be a believer in Islam.

His measured reaction to his traumatic loss also challenges another stereotype: that bitterness is the inevitable reaction when things go wrong.

Many spiritual approaches to life counter that presumption and teach that forgiveness brings healing to both the forgiver and the forgiven.

Today, researchers, who have examined the relationship between failure, bitterness and quality of life, agree “constant bitterness can make a person ill”.

According to Carsten Wrosch, professor in the Concordia University Department of Psychology in Montreal, Canada: “Persistent bitterness may result in global feelings of anger and hostility that, when strong enough, could affect a person’s physical health.”  In Embitterment: Societal, psychological, and clinical perspectives (Springer 2011) Wrosch and his co-author Jesse Renaud single out failure as a frequent cause of bitterness which typically involves anger and recrimination.

I have always liked the way another healer in adversity – President Nelson Mandela – pinpointed the self-defeating nature of bitterness.  He said: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Even with the best will in the world I, like many, have had to ask myself over the years how I can move beyond bitterness when it seems so rational?

I marvel at examples like that of Jahan, Mandela and of Christians and others who have not only forgiven the killer of a loved relative but who have worked with the criminal to turn around their life.

Thankfully I haven’t faced such a profound demand in my own struggles with bitterness.  It is demanding enough to maintain poise in the day to day battle with personal slights, strong disagreements and mutual misunderstanding.

In facing all these it is spirituality that consistently pulls me through.  I would define that spirituality as the call to view others through a different lens.  A spiritual lens can help focus thought on the enduring qualities of an individual rather than focusing on a particular act they might have committed.  It can help the restoration of an inner well-being irrespective of the decisions and acts of others.

Scientists Renaud and Wrosch concluded constant bitterness can lead to physical illness, affecting everything from organ function to immune response and vulnerability to disease.

So that inner voice, or a perceptive friend, which tells us to “Get over it!” might not be offering us only a moral compass, they might also be offering us some sound health advice.

Huffington Post UK Lifestyle Editor Georgia James wrote on the same study in her latest post: How To Stop Negativity Damaging Your HealthIt includes seven ways to combat an attack of negativity, one of which incisively highlights the benefits of focusing our thought “in the moment”. Sharing these ideas from Philipa Gammell, Head of Wellbeing at Lomax Bespoke Fitness & Wellbeing, she wrote: “Within this moment we are pure, untainted by what we ‘think’ we are, what we ‘were’, what we ‘think’ we will become… We are free.” 


3 thoughts

  1. The devastation from the riots certainly gives me a great many things to think about in terms of social issues. I was really amazed to see so much greatness arise from this adversity. And this story of Tariq Jahan is something that gives me so much hope. He is a great example of man’s ability to reflect God’s love and goodness – especially when bitterness could overcome him. Thanks for sharing this article!

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  2. The beauty of living in our interconnected world is that lessons learned on one side of the globe can immediately benefit those on the other. A link to this article has been posted on the Facebook page Corazon a Corazon — A Spiritual Defense of Mexico. Speaking heart to heart out of the “great heart of Love,” is one way to heal our hurts. Thanks for posting this.

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  3. Hi Susans…! 🙂

    Susan 1.
    Thanks for checking in and for sharing your thoughts…there has indeed been impressive good coming out of the community response to the riots…which has been moving to see.

    Susan 2.
    What an honour to have these thoughts shared with those who live in, or just love, Mexico. And what a great example of mounting “a spiritual defence”…which is what all nations need! Thanks. For other readers, here is a link to the Facebook page Susan has posted to: http://on.fb.me/oOlKZj

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