The Folly of Revenge

"This is certain, that man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well."
Francis Bacon
It is a great blessing to humanity that cows are not vengeful creatures. Considering how people have treated cattle throughout history, we would be on the horns of a great dilemma if they ever decided to get even. Cows, however, keep life pretty simple. They live in the moment, and they are not known for keeping grudges.

Humans, on the other hand, have a sense of history. We remember who has been good to us and who has not. We also develop a sense of fairness at an early age. Young children know that when you share a cookie, the parts should be the same size, and if you hit me it is only fair that I hit you back. We’ve become a risky species because of that. Tit for tat works fairly well at a certain age and at a rather low level on the scale of moral development. The doctrine of mutually assured elbow poking can keep a row of  7 year olds in line, for a while. If you know I’m going to poke you if you poke me, you might not poke me. The theory breaks down, however, if you are bigger than me. Then I have to appeal to a higher authority to deliver the punishment that will even the score, and hopefully, make you behave. Or I have to hit you harder.

When Hammurabi came up with "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" back in ancient Babylon it was enlightened for the time. It put fairness into the process of revenge. If you knock out my tooth, I don’t get to kill you and your whole village. I just get to knock out your tooth, or have the judge and his executioner do it for me. This was good, because it kept people in line and minimized vengeful slaughter.

Almost 4000 years later, people still refer to "An eye for and eye" to justify their thirst for revenge. We hear it frequently in discussions of crime, jail sentencing, and especially capital punishment. The problem is that when I focus my energies on hurting you for the wrong you have done to me, it is my heart that becomes hardened. The heart of the victim becomes like the heart of the criminal. If I kill a murderer, have I not become a killer? When I cling to the urge towards revenge I must stay in the role of victim, but I also take on the role of one who does harm. What does this do to my soul?

Vengeance in our personal lives can be particularly harmful. How many family relationships are broken beyond repair because someone felt the need to get back at another family member for some wrong done? Relationships strained by errors in judgement and bad behavior are wrecked by the felt need to get back at the miscreant. It is one more way the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children.

Take some time to reflect on the role of vengeance in your life. Ask yourself:

Do I believe in getting back at people who have wronged me?
How do I justify this?
What does my vengefulness do for me?
What does my vengefulness do to me?
What has vengeance done to my relationships?
Since revenge tends to breed retaliation, how can I break out of the cycle?
Can I be a compassionate person and still cling to the urge to revenge?
What is the positive alternative to vengeance?

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© 2002 Tom Barrett