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.”


Personal recollections
On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
, 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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Wasted Youth: “What’s Left?” June 2012, MRR #349

I recently saw “The Kid with a Bike,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Movies by the Dardenne brothers are art house faves and raves but, in my opinion, they are also slow and a tad boring. The story is about an 11 year old boy whose mother has deserted the family, and whose father has recently abandoned him. The kid, named Cyril, is eventually fostered by a kind-hearted woman who is a hairdresser in the projects-like apartment complex where Cyril and the father used to live. But the kid gets in with a bad crowd, an older criminal kid who puts him up to the robbery of a local newsstand owner. Cyril knocks out both the owner and his son in the process of the robbery.

Now, here’s the interesting part of the story. Cyril eventually gets caught, and taken before what I presume to be a Belgian judge. There, he agrees to apologize to the newsstand owner whom he robbed and hit, and with his foster parent, the hairdresser, to pay restitution to the man.

It’s an amazing, enlightening, little scene, which I presume is fairly accurate. In the United States, its likely the kid would be tried as an adult, sentenced as an adult, and sent to adult prison where he would be turned into a hardened criminal and become a repeat offender for the rest of his life. I hardly exaggerate. The American criminal justice system is that punitive, and that primitive. And before someone takes me to task for unduly elevating those bleeding-heart liberal-socialist Europeans for coddling their juvenile criminals-in-the-making, consider that the Belgians have been around for a few thousand years. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that they’ve learned a thing or two about criminals and criminal justice, and that rehabilitation and restitution might just be a better way to go in many cases, particularly with kids?

I was 16 in 1968, arguably just past the crest of the hippie countercultural wave, when I got turned on to Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s. And I was 26 in 1978, the initial swell of punk rock, when I was blown away by the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia. Two rebellious youth movements, so it seems only natural to me that kids are always at odds with adult society. As Marlon Brando’s character in the film The Wild One says in response to the question what he’s rebelling against: “What do you got?” That’s a far cry from seeing young people as potentially, or rather, inherently criminal though. But somewhere along the line, society started assuming the worst about kids.

I grew up in California, before the Proposition 13 axe fell, when high schools had plenty of money for education. I took art and music classes, and when I couldn’t stomach regular gym, I took archery and bowling. There were shop classes, and drivers’ education classes. Yes, I was on a college prep track, and took academic electives by the score. But I also took creative writing, and worked on the high school literary magazine. There were no overt gangs and guns at my high school, and no guards or police either. It was the 60s, so we were rebelling against dress codes and speech codes. We fought for and won the right to have an open campus at lunch, when we could leave the school and eat at neighboring businesses. We also published and distributed an underground newspaper, and protested against the Vietnam war by wearing black Moratorium armbands, both free speech issues.

Nowadays, high schools resemble prisons in lockdown, with guards patrolling the halls, and police on call to arrest students for the slightest infraction. Gangs and guns are rampant, and to enforce discipline, more and more schools are adopting dress codes and school uniforms. Hate speech is strictly prohibited, as is other suspect behavior, though this doesn’t seem to protect the weaker or gay kids from being bullied. School budgets have been cut so drastically that parents, even teachers, have to contribute money in order to give their children a halfway decent education. And still our schools are failing. And still our schools are flunking or abandoning kids left and right. And still our schools are better at teaching children crime then academics.

Now, of course, I acknowledge that the times have changed. Whereas someone might have brought a pistol to school in my day, today its likely to be a bomb or an AK47. Whereas parents and school administrators worried that kids were puffing marijuana in the bathrooms in the 60s, today its much more serious drugs, beginning with methamphetamine, and continuing down a long list of designer pharmaceuticals, not to mention the drugs the kids manage to steal from their parents medicine cabinets. Whereas sex education was a great controversy and sneaking a Playboy into a school locker was the height of scandal when I went to high school, now everything is hypersexualized, with teen sexting/cybering commonplace. Yes, indeed, times have changed, but it doesn’t help much to blame complacent teachers with seniority, or education unions. Take a close look at the record of charter schools, supposedly the grand alternative to public schools, where unions are banned and teachers are hired and fired at will. Charter schools, on average, do no better than the public education system in graduating kids from high school, let alone preparing them for college, or the real world.

In my opinion, the biggest change since my own high school days is that young people now are treated as if they are overt threats. The criminal justice system, in routinely trying, convicting and jailing juveniles as adults, is only the most blatant example of this. Consider the amount of tracking and spyware parents install on their kids computers, if they can manage to outwit their tech-savvy children. Consider the regular monitoring of kids’ cellphones and facebook pages, not just by parents, but by school administrators, employers, and police. Consider that parents are even surgically implanting RFID chips into their toddlers, not merely to prevent kidnapping, but to keep tabs on their kids at all times. My generation rebelled against the stultifying monotony and corporate conformity of the Eisenhower 50s. Is it any wonder that Columbine has become the symbol for our age?

Enough of this rant.

There’s no way to go back to some golden age, whether it’s the 1990s, the 1960s, or the 1930s. Instead, I’d like to move forward, with a criminal justice system that practices rehabilitation and restitution, rather than retribution and punishment, at least for kids. For all the blather about violent crime being down in this country, the United States has just 5% of the world’s population, yet it has nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. That’s because of all the people we throw in jail for drug possession, small-scale theft, and petty crime. America’s prison population is disproportionately black and brown as well, amounting to the criminalization of youth by race, with black youth suffering the most.

No doubt, the outcry will be that do-gooder liberal criminal justice reform was tried in the 60s and failed, or that juvenile delinquents will learn how to play the system and, literally, get away with murder. The so-called 60s reforms were actually a confluence of several factors. The “liberal” community relations and community policing programs that came out of the 1950/60s civil rights movements and violent urban unrest are still with us today, whereas “liberal” flexible sentencing practices and criminal rights campaigns have been thoroughly routed by determinate sentencing statutes and victims rights advocacy. However, the idea that kids should be absolved of personal responsibility for their crimes because they are psychologically disturbed and society is to blame is a hoary old chestnut. If you doubt this, check out the lyrics to the classic West Side Story song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” copyright 1956.

What has never, ever gained traction is that restitution, and in particular, rehabilitation should replace retribution and punishment with respect to dealing with young people. When the simple human desire for vengeance is set aside, a number of reasons for not taking criminal justice in a rehabilitative direction are typically given; the lack of scientific research into the efficacy of rehabilitation programs, the inability to parse out individual criminal motivation in relation to such programs, and the complexity and expense of rehabilitation as a strategy. It doesn’t seem appropriate for the United States to follow the lead of other countries with many decades of experience in criminal justice reform. Instead, what is considered appropriate is for this country to expend exorbitant amounts of funding to build prisons and militarize police forces in order to squander astronomically more money to keep nearly 4% of the American population under some form of correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, prison).

What a waste, not of dollars, but of lives. Young lives.


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  • "I had a good run." —"Lefty" Hooligan, "What's Left?"


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