Revenge!: “What’s Left?” December 2020

Anytime somebody bullies you, you should thank them every day. Right now, this bully is the only person in your life who’s giving you an actual challenge. Everybody else is anesthetizing you; hugging the power out of you; making you weak. You think the struggle of living in the world gets easier? People stop giving you a hard time? Learn to stand up for yourself now and give it right back to them. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.

—“D” (“Darius Pringle”), character, TV show Chance

Nothing inspires forgiveness quite like revenge.

—Scott Adams

I was a Sunday school Catholic. My parents were Catholic enough that they wanted me to get all the pre-majority sacraments—baptism, penance, holy communion, and confirmation. But they weren’t Catholic enough to send me to parochial school. So I went to public school and learned what rigamarole I needed to acquire those sacraments by attending Sunday school. Of those first four, penance and communion were a most peculiar combination. Once it was explained to me that we confessed our sins secretly to god via a priest and were absolved by saying x amount of Hail Mary’s and eating a wafer, I realized how rife for corruption that arrangement was. Penance, followed by communion, meant that any sin could be conveniently pardoned. Or as Grigory Rasputin played it—the greater the sin, the greater the repentance, the greater the spiritual salvation.

Rituals of forgiveness are part of various religious traditions. Christians are told to consider “what would Jesus do?” and then follow his teachings to “turn the other cheek.” Nelson Mandela is thus exalted as Christ-like for forgiving the apartheid criminals who held him in prison for 27 years. Quasi-religious organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous insist on “making amends”—per AA’s Steps Eight and Nine—in order to make a full recovery from drug addiction. I didn’t buy into AA to get sober, and I gave up Catholicism for Lent long ago. So I’m leery of the white bread Christian advice for victims to “forgive and forget.”  I’m more favorable toward Jewish customs of forgiveness, typified by Yom Kippur, because Judaism puts the onus to forgive and forget onto the perpetrator rather than the victim. The point is not “WWJD?” but “doing the right thing.” First, unlike the private and personal aspects of forgiveness in Christianity, forgiveness in Judaism is a communitarian affair, practiced publicly as well as privately in front of the whole congregation. The perpetrator is obligated to do everything in their power to make a sincere effort at repentance (teshuvah, or “return”) in order to earn forgiveness, apologizing not to god but directly to the people they have harmed. The perpetrator is commanded to ask for forgiveness three times and enjoined never to forget the wrong they have done. Only then is the victim required by Jewish law (halakhah) to forgive.

Finally, certain crimes like the Nazi Holocaust cannot be forgiven. According to Yerachmiel Gorelik no individual Nazi has ever demonstrated the level of “remorse, contrition and superhuman determination to make amends” worthy of forgiveness. So to forgive the Nazis for their crimes would be to dishonor their victims and debase our own sense of right and wrong. Compare this to the Catholic attitude that all “sins”—including murder—are forgivable through the sacraments, provided that the perpetrator sincerely repents and promises not to do it again. The only sin that cannot be forgiven is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Yet one more reason why I’m no longer Catholic.

I rarely forgive and I never forget. This has nothing to do with morality or ethics. I just think that forgiveness is overrated. I don’t buy the crap that forgiveness is needed in order for a victim to heal, move on or get closure. Forgiveness is not divine.

I don’t accept the psychology behind the notion that forgiveness is a good thing. The process of forgiveness requires the mutual acknowledgement that an offense has been committed and that the perpetrator is wrong while the victim is right. But the perpetrator and their victim never really see the crime in question the same way. The perpetrator often doesn’t see what they did as wrong, or as really wrong. They may even feel justified in doing what they did, and they may not be as grateful for the victim’s forgiveness as does the victim. And although elated at being right and thus holding the moral high ground, the victim often doesn’t see their own forgiveness quite as thoroughgoing as the victim would want. This leads to unconscious resentments that manifest as frustration, irritation, impatience, aloofness or unwillingness to assist. Given the impossibility of ever truly forgetting the offense, the victim may harbor an unrequited desire for revenge. None of this is healthy, conducive to moving on, or amenable to closure.

If it’s impossible to forgive and forget, then are there alternatives?

The first option is to understand the perpetrator without forgiving them. However, knowing one’s enemy is important, but not very satisfying. Paul Jacobs, co-founder of Mother Jones, soundly dismissed the notion that communication and reaching out to talk to one’s foes are any kind of panacea. “Whenever I ‘communicate’ with my enemies I realize they’re the sons-of-bitches I knew they were from the start.” Understanding the enemy is good for planning an attack, or in this case revenge.

Revenge is actually a quite satisfying solution. One that I’ve had lots of experience dispensing. As a late hippie I used to say “I’ll be mellow when I’m dead.” And as an early punk I identified with the Johnny Rotten/PiL lyric “anger is an energy.” I’ve always had a strong aggro streak. Combine that with rarely letting doubts get in the way of taking direct action, and revenge has been my preferred response. Anger isn’t necessarily bad so long as it has an outlet and isn’t allowed to fester. Gandhi may or may not have said “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” but I’ve tried to be a little more creative with my revenge than straight up tit-for-tat retaliation. I’ve been known to counterattack in the heat of the moment but I’m also a big fan of the sentiment that “revenge is a dish best served cold.”

But in taking stock of the trail of mayhem I’ve left in my life I’ve concluded that revenge is not the best response. So let’s explore two more choices, given that forgetting is never an option and forgiving may or may not have anything to do with healing, moving on, or finding closure.  Feeling hurt, betrayed or abused for myself or others engenders a sense of loss and grief that needs to be dealt with in its own right.

One possibility is traditional ritual which has been updated with the concept of process. Returning to Judaism, there is a well-defined ritual of mourning, from aninut and sitting shiva to reciting the Kaddish and observing Yom Kippur. Rituals of bereavement have been secularized and modernized with the “five stages of grief” model first introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. When my parents died I lit candles, joined a grief support group for almost a year and wrote a novel. Both ritual and process involve time, which validates one more old maxim: “time heals all wounds.” I don’t forgive in lieu of a sincere apology, but time does soften the outrage I feel for the harm and injury I can never forget. Over time, as acceptance replaces forgiveness, the desire for revenge lessens.

I’m a recovering Catholic who admires the Jewish approach to forgiveness and grief. I’m also an atheist who takes a lot from Buddhism. The Buddhist approach to grief is to accept it as a terrible gift that, if denied, “rob[s] ourselves of the heavy stones that will eventually be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion” according to Joan Halifax. Detached compassion is recommended instead of forgiveness in a parable cited by spiritual leader Ravi Shankar. A businessman abused Gautama for leading the man’s children astray. When the businessman subsequently asked to be forgiven, Buddha said ‘No! I cannot excuse you! Why should I forgive you when you have done nothing wrong!” Gautama suggested that the person the businessman abused “is not here now.” To say “I forgive you” is to trade on the perpetrator’s guilt, while compassion means ignoring the issue of guilt altogether. Finally, Ken McLeod writes in “Forgiveness Is Not Buddhist” that the “meaning of forgiveness is grounded in the language of debt” and self-interest. “[B]y importing the foreign (to Buddhism) notion of forgiveness, contemporary Buddhists are unwittingly importing a very different system of thought and practice and undermining the powerful mystical practices in Buddhism that may have inspired them in the first place.” Instead of forgiveness, McLeod recommends a proper understanding of how karma works, and practices of unceasing spiritual purification.

Grief work and detached compassion reframe the issue of forgiveness. I’ll conclude with another “Darius Pringle” quote: “Life gives us choices, defines us by the ones we make. And yet we make them all in complete uncertainty.”

 

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Chance
, TV series by Kem Nunn and Alexandra Cunningham
“Exploring the complexities of forgiveness” by Yerachmiel Gorelik
“Why Forgiveness is Overrated” by Erica Manfred
“Why Forgiveness is Overrated” by Hannah Braime
“Why Forgiveness is Overrated” by Tim Hoffman
“When Buddha Refused To Forgive” by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
“Forgiveness Is Not Buddhist” by Ken McLeod

 

 

 

 

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