The Road to Reconciliation: Renounce Revenge

Now that you’ve gotten in touch with your feelings and values, you realize that you are hurt. The next step, if you chose to take the path towards healing, is to renounce revenge.

Revenge comes in a variety of colors and flavors, all of them dark and bitter. There’s the kind, practiced by mafia chieftains who cannot afford to appear soft, where you hunt down and punish the offender, with extreme prejudice. There’s the Hatfield and McCoy, Montague and Capulet, Israeli and Palestinian type of vendetta that never seems to end. There’s the tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye variety, practiced by couples who commit adultery in response to the other sleeping around. Subtile digs, where you never let your partner forget anything, are popular. So’s passive aggression, where your partner may not even know what you’re doing to get even. Revenge is codified and legitimized by courts in systems of retributive justice. Punish the offender enough, it is thought, and they will have paid the price of crime.

Revenge is said to feel good, but I have my doubts. I remember when Osama Bin Laden met his end. There was some satisfaction to see that happen, but did it really help us forget 9/11? Does revenge really work? Does it insure that crimes will not be repeated? Does it deter misbehavior, right wrongs, or enforce order? When you bring someone to justice, is justice created, or is injustice given a new lease on life?

I have my opinion on these questions and you may have yours. Social scientists have conclusions they have reached on the basis of rigorous scientific analysis; as rigorous as social science ever gets. They don’t, by and large, favor retribution. But the urge to commit revenge can be very strong and it’s hard to believe that it does not have any evolutionary justification. Besides, it’s one thing to preach love and forgiveness in church, a hippie commune, or an academic conference, it’s quite another to do so in the ghetto or Iraq, where the questions come up most frequently.

If, after listening to your feelings and re-engaging with your values, you believe revenge is the way to go, then, I suppose, there’s nothing I can do to convince you, otherwise. I think it’s strange to practice revenge on the people closest to you, to insist on a pound of flesh from your own flesh and blood; but I’m not you, I guess. I wouldn’t want to be either a Hatfield or a McCoy. It might be cool to be a mafia chieftain and order my enemies killed while dining on veal saltimbocca, but it would be a bummer to be interrupted by a guy with a violin case before dessert arrived.

I will say that, if you are serious about reconciliation, or even personal peace, you’re not going to get to it by going through revenge. You can’t get there from there. You will have to renounce revenge if you’re going to get anywhere down the path to reconciliation. The reason why may be more clear as we go on, but for now I think you will agree that spending your time plotting revenge is incompatible with putting the injury behind you.

Does renouncing revenge mean that you can’t ask anything of the offender before you can reconcile? Absolutely not. You can achieve personal peace without getting the offender involved, but to be reconciled, she has to do something, too. It’ll be hard for her. She’ll have to hear you speak about your hurt and its effects. She’ll have to take responsibility, make restitution, and change her ways. You’ll have to insist on it. That’s your revenge.

I’ve worked with many criminals over the years: thieves, murderers, rapists, and child molesters, to name a few. Almost all of them would much rather do jail time than look their victims in the eye and acknowledge what they’ve done. Most would chose solitary confinement before accepting responsibility. Some might even elect the electric chair over meaningful change. You’re not letting them off easy by offering reconciliation.

So, renounce revenge, if only because it’ll make you a better person than the one who hurt you. Like someone said once, living a good life is the best revenge.