During a fourth-grade sleepover, I awoke in the night frothed over by Barbasol. The other kids were tucked in their sleeping bags, snoring. I woke them to see if they, too, had been creamed; they hadn’t been but seemed surprised and angry on my behalf and offered to help find the culprit. I wanted to go back to sleep, but they insisted we keep searching. And then they could no longer maintain the charade — who else could it have been? — and their laughter emerged, thunderous and harsh. I returned to my sleeping bag, pretending I wasn’t embarrassed. By morning, I was praising the ingenuity of their prank.
Years after the shaving-cream incident, my paternal grandfather stopped speaking to me because I told him to not be a jerk to a waitress; I eventually wrote a deferential letter of reconciliation, unwilling to let our shared grievances fester. By then it had become a habit: I sidestepped grudges like a superstitious child skipping over cracks in the sidewalk.
But at some point I began to find enjoyment, even solace, in holding a grudge. I have a grudge against an author who subtweeted me after I requested a blurb; I have a grudge against Vince Carter for forcing his way off the Toronto Raptors; I have a grudge against the shelf that keeps bonking me in the head. A month ago, Uber Eats emailed me a coupon code that didn’t work. When I brought this to their attention, I was told they couldn’t refund my money. Years ago, I would have taken my loss and kept ordering. This time, I boycotted the service for a month, and it felt excellent.
Grudges are small, persistent and powerful, like an ant hauling a twig.
No one is too good for a grudge. In the “Iliad,” Apollo inflicts a plague on the Achaeans because they disrespected his priest. King Henry VIII upended his country’s relationship with Catholicism, one could argue, over a beef with the pope. Every Taylor Swift album is a series of grudges set to music.
Let me be clear about terms: A grudge is not a resentment. Sure, they’re made of the same material — poison — but while resentment is concentrated, a grudge is watered down, drinkable and refreshingly effervescent, the low-calorie lager to resentment’s bootleg grain alcohol. Resentments are best suited for major mistreatment: the best friend who ran away with your wife, the parents who pressured you into a career you told them you hated, the ex who emptied your checking account. Grudges, however, work best in response to small and singular harms and annoyances: the neighbor who parked in front of your driveway, the cashier who charged you for a drink you never ordered. Did someone truly, existentially wrong you? Don’t waste your time growing a grudge — save it for something pettier.
Which is to say: The best grudges are small, persistent and powerful, like an ant hauling a twig. And they thrive with the aid of distance and time. In 10th grade, my chemistry teacher offered extra credit to anyone who wrote and performed a song about the periodic table. I wrote the song; I performed it for class; she decided against giving me the extra points. Only recently did I accept that what I feel for that teacher is not anger or resentment or shame — it’s a grudge. If it sounds as if I’m withholding critical details, of course I’m withholding critical details! Decontextualized stories are such stuff as grudges are made on. The point is I have no evidence that my chemistry teacher sees the wrongness of her position all those years ago — and in that expanse is where my grudge continues to squat.
There was, for me, an inciting incident. Two years ago I came out as nonbinary and started using they/them pronouns. I was initially a font of forgiveness for everyone who misgendered me: the roommate who remarked on my “masculine energy,” the cis friend who questioned whether I really was trans.
But when a year passed and it kept happening, I started to think of the immense effort it took for me to come out, and of how the misgenderers seemed to be acting as if it hadn’t even happened. I didn’t want to cut people out of my life for one-off comments; most often they were honest mistakes, born of ignorance or confusion. Glib jokes weren’t worth my bitterness. That’s how I discovered my capacity for holding grudges. By expecting people to treat me how I want to be treated, and remembering when they do not — a simple little grudge, nothing as serious as a resentment — I reaffirm my identity and protect my self-worth from those who misgender me.
Last spring, a woman exiting a taxi cab doored me off my bike, and I flipped headfirst into the street. When I stood up, little lights flickered in front of my face. I tried to roll my bike, but my front wheel wobbled. I know what you’re thinking: Oh boy, here comes a grudge.
Not so fast. The woman and I talked it out. She was exceptionally sorry, and soon I felt bad for being angry with her. She had just gotten home from a job interview; she rarely took cabs. She paid me $60 to replace my wheel. I don’t begrudge her. She apologized; she paid retribution. At urgent care, a few hours later, the doctor gave me a clean bill of health. “It’s a shame you can’t sue the woman who hit you,” she said. I thought, Does she really peg me as the type of person who sues? Right away, I felt a grudge beginning to form. I haven’t returned to that urgent care since.
Alex McElroy is the author of “The Atmospherians,” a New York Times Editors’ Choice.