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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Thinking about death: “What’s Left?” September 2018, MRR #424

I light candles for the people in my life who’ve died. It comes from my Catholic upbringing, and any opportunity I get to visit a church with a votive stand—whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or even Buddhist—I light candles. But it doesn’t have any spiritual meaning beyond ritual. There’s no “I’m spiritual but not religious” bullshit for me. I’m a recovering Catholic striving for atheism on a good day. On a bad day I’m a feeble agnostic.

My parents were never really churchgoing. When my sister and I were up for the childhood sacraments of penance, communion, and confirmation we had to go to Sunday School, learn the catechism, and attend mass. But after receiving them my parents no longer required church participation of us. When my mom got small cell lung cancer, my dad started attending mass again, praying for a miracle. After a course of chemo, one night my mom got into the family car, drove to an unknown house, knocked on the door, asked if my father was there, then drove home when she learned he wasn’t. A month and a half after she died of the cancer, my dad died of a heart attack. Despite my irreligion, I’m haunted by John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. […] I go to prepare a place for you.”

The meaning of life is that it stops.
—Franz Kafka

My parents died in their 60s. Having gone through the second World War, their respective families in Poland were decimated. So the death of my uncle, aunt, and niece in Chicago virtually eliminated the American side of my family. My wife’s parents died in their 80s, although her extended family remains quite large. Now that I’m 65, many of my friends and acquaintances are around my age or older and I’m having to attend more and more funerals and memorials. We hosted a memorial in April for a friend of my wife who she knew for over 40 years.

But I’ve been lucky. I wasn’t born and raised in poverty, or with daily domestic violence, or in a war zone, so the death of people close around me wasn’t a regular occurrence. Throughout my schooling I personally knew maybe three individuals my age who died. The last was David Pickett, a UCSD student who was one of the most active members of an independent Leftist student newspaper called “The New Indicator” to which I belonged. He was also a drinking buddy of mine. In researching San Diego politics from 1979 to 1981 for a recent column in various UCSD digital archives (MRR #419), I came across details of his death. He “was injured in a road accident while vacationing in Mexico over the Spring break. It was a long drive to the nearest hospital, but he was still alive when he arrived. The hospital, however, was a private one and David was refused treatment because his ability to pay was in question. En route to a public hospital he died.” The description of David’s death concluded with the comment that his life “just wasn’t as important as the profit column in the hospital ledger.”

The article concluded with an angry rant against capitalism. People die every day in car accidents, factories, wars, and being “turned away from hospitals all the time in the U.S., in Mexico, everywhere in the world where hospitals must yield a profit.” “Our system maximizes profit; and profit and human welfare are two very different things. […] We remember David; we don’t think he had to die. Those who agree with us should help us oppose the system that prefers profit to life.” (https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb0239978w/_1.pdf) Forty years later, I chose to remember David Pickett’s death by crafting his life into a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” as a longish short story that I then converted into a prequel to my science fiction novel, 1% Free. Such are the advantages of fiction over fact in capturing truths not immediately evident in reality.

Being alone, reading voraciously, writing this memoir, I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I believe the constant, underlying thought of all men who think must be of their own death, no matter what the surface thought might be. When they think of living, they are also thinking of death, for the two are mingled.
And thinking is a curse.
—Edward Bunker, No Beast So Fierce

The three things I’ve been most interested in as an adult—politics, writing, and rocknroll—all have a higher-than-average mortality rate. Practicing politics can lead to an early grave under authoritarian regimes, or in the US if you have the wrong skin color and are a particularly effective leftist activist. Such was the case with Malcolm X, Bobby Hutton, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton, and scores more. Writers experience a greater incidence of early death thanks to their propensity for substance abuse due either to the mistaken belief it’s a necessary part of the creative process or to overall depression from thinking too much. My list of great alcoholic writers includes Jack London, Earnest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson, but it would almost be easier to enumerate those writers who didn’t drink themselves to death. Unlike my ineffectual political activism or my alcohol abuse however, I’ve never been more than a fan of rocknroll. I was never a musician. I never played an instrument or was part of a band.

The youth lifestyle and culture associated with rocknroll music also kills more people than the wife-two-kids-a-dog-and-a-house-in-the-suburbs middle-class life to which most normies aspire. Jim Carroll made that the subtext of his song “People Who Died;” heavily cribbing its Catholic sensibilities from Ted Berrigan’s poem of the same name with its final line “My friends whose deaths have slowed my heart stay with me now.” In turn, the band Detention had fun skewering the infamous 27 Club meme in “Dead Rock and Rollers.” It was mere coincidence when Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix all died of drug overdoses at 27 years old, but it seemed like a genuine curse when Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse joined their ranks. “And what about you, Jim Carroll?/All your friends have/What are you waiting for?” Detention asked in 1983, with Carroll eventually joining those dead rockers in 2009.

We are ignoring the fact that bringing death to the level of consciousness is an important element of mental health . . . Hagakure insists that to ponder death daily is to concentrate daily on life. When we do our work thinking that we may die today, we cannot help feeling that our job suddenly becomes radiant with life and meaning.
—Yukio Mishima, The Way of the Samurai

I’ve had a dozen risky close-to-death experiences and a couple of health crisis incidents in my life that made me suddenly aware I was alive, and glad to be alive. But there needs to be some other way to value life than to flirt with death.

Paul Haller, the abbott of the San Francisco Zen Center, once advised me in a private consultation to “meditate on death” as a way to appreciate life. By the way, that very same attitude toward death is why Zen was the religion of the Samurai, why Japan’s Zen denominations wholeheartedly supported the Emperor throughout WWII, and why zen mindfulness is used as therapy for PTSD by the US military. Because it’s also part-and-parcel of the Zen attitude toward the military, taking life, war, and the like. That’s a subject for a future column however. I’ll have turned 66 by the publication of this column, and thinking about death has become frequent. I’m by nature an introverted, introspective person who frequently thinks about my life, what I have and haven’t done, and what my dwindling future holds. My loved ones, friends, frenemies, and enemies are all getting old and infirm. Some have already died. So, given that I’m also a little OCD, meditating on death has become a daily occurrence.

Our white, mainly Protestant society doesn’t deal well with death and dying. We have no dominant ceremonial holidays like the festive Mexican Catholic Dia de los Muertos or the somber Jewish Yom Kippur and few personal rituals like my candle lighting practice to comfort us. “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die” according to that popular country western song lyric. But in not believing in heaven, what I’m left with is not wanting to die. I haven’t made up my mind whether thinking about death helps me feel more alive or that thinking itself is a curse. “And who shall I say is calling?”

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