It's no fun being the target of mean or unfair treatment. Is there anything you can do when someone mistreats you for no apparent reason?
When I met my future mother-in-law for the first time, I was caught completely off-guard by her immediate hostility and unkindness. It seemed that I was not the daughter-in-law she wanted - if she wanted one at all.
My emotions ran the gamut - indignation, anger, defensiveness. Then, after the marriage, I tried winning her acceptance through extra measures of friendliness and tolerance. None of these strategies worked. Finally, I withdrew from the relationship as much as possible - a fairly easy feat since we lived far apart. The problem, I felt, was hers.
Years went by - years of continuing animosity, of waiting for her to change. But I didn't really expect it, and told myself I didn't care.
One day I was praying about something totally unrelated to this situation. The thought came strongly to me to look up the definition of grudge. This idea seemed random. But I'd learned to act on ideas that come through prayer, and I found this description: "A deep-seated feeling of ill will that seeks satisfaction."
My attention was arrested; I wanted no part of this kind of feeling. So I decided to examine my thinking. I have to admit I didn't expect to find much evidence of grudges in my consciousness.
My memory took me back quite a ways - to an elementary school teacher who punished me for something I hadn't done. Then there were the times my brother had teased me. Many other moments of embarrassment and injustice sprang to thought, and all the resentful feelings came with them.
By the time I finished my list, it was disconcertingly long. Worse, it was wholly at odds with my understanding of spiritual reality - of a good, ever- present God and His equally perfect creation. The first chapter of Genesis in the Bible describes man as created in God's image, deemed by God as very good. I knew intuitively that only prayer could help me grasp this more fully and resolve this disparity.
Praying made a huge difference. It bolstered my fledgling effort to turn from an inventory of wrongs to a pure and innocent discernment of good. And it impelled me to revisit my list to identify Godlike qualities, such as intelligence, integrity, humor, and beauty, about every individual. Inspiration and joy transformed this exercise into a project of genuine healing.
When I reached the end, my thought was completely freed from long-held feelings of bitterness and indignation - feelings I hadn't even realized I'd been carrying. I felt I had been released from a mental prison.
That would have been enough. But there was more. That very night I saw some direct results of my thought-correcting prayer.
Late that evening my husband and I received a call from my husband's mother. This hour-long talk included one of the worst verbal attacks we'd ever had. But a truly wonderful change took place in us. Not once were we tempted to react or protest. And when she finally hung up, we simply talked about how we could help her feel loved.
This response marked the first time in our married life that we had no desire to defend ourselves or persuade her of our position. When we decided to send a small bouquet of flowers, our only motive was love.
The next day brought happy results. She called again, and while there was no apology for the attack or thanks for the flowers, there was a definite softening in her voice. From that point on, acceptance and affection grew steadily. I even became comfortable calling her "Mom." And years later, when she needed physical care and help finding a new home, she and I worked together happily on meeting these needs.
The mental exercise I went through that day was really a spiritual discipline, an active way of praying about relationships. Searching for evidence of God's good in others - even those we've clashed with in the past - naturally fills our hearts with generosity, charity, and compassion. It excludes all feelings of ill will from our thought and our experience. And it replaces the most long-standing grudges with sweet temper and grace.