Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Paradox of Revenge

We recently watched American History X in class as part of a unit on racism and prejudice, and one question I always throw out to my students after the movie is: “So what do you think will happen now? Will Derek seek revenge for the Crips killing his brother?”

Of course, if you’ve seen the film and know what Derek went through—a neo-Nazi skinhead sent to prison for killing two Crips and learning in prison that race doesn’t determine who is and who isn’t your friend—you know the likely answer is “no.” If Danny was killed both as a gang initiation and as retaliation for his brother’s actions, what good would getting even do? Derek would retaliate; then the Crips would retalitate. Then Derek would retaliate. Then the Crips. And so on and so on, ad infinitum, ad naseum.

The point is, revenge never ends, and no one ever wins. And as Dr. Sweeney asks Derek at a pivotal point in the movie, speaking of all the hate crimes Derek had committed in his continual attempt to get even, “Has anything you’ve ever done made you feel any better?”

Derek realizes he can’t say yes.

Revenge is a hollow victory, and not just because it “puts you ahead” on the scoreboard for merely the briefest of moments. A person who takes revenge is showing the world that they’ve been shamed, or that they feel humiliated. The act of revenge is, in actuality, just an attempt to restore wounded pride.

Consequently, those who seek revenge force themselves to wear the mantel of a victim. They feel unfairly injured or wronged. At its extremes, a fired employee may go postal and show up at his old workplace with a shotgun to take revenge (note that he usually dies in the bargain). A scorned lover might get even by going on Craigslist and posting nasty things about her ex (to the rest of the world, she comes off as unbalanced and vindictive, a person with no dignity). A grade school kid who feels picked on by the class bully might seek revenge by sneaking into class after school and wrecking the bully’s science project (and when it’s found out who did the deed, guess which of the two will wind up expelled?)

The point is, these “victims” who seek revenge in an attempt to restore their pride usually wind up harming themselves more than the person they wanted to hurt.

That is the paradox of revenge.

Many have noted this paradox and commented on it:

•“Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” ~ St. Augustine

•“There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.” ~ Josh Billings (1818 - 1885)

•“In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.” ~ Sir Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626)

•“Live well. It is the greatest revenge.” ~ The Talmud

•“You cannot change the facts of the past but you can change the meaning of the past.” ~unknown

•“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968)

•“There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” ~ A.J. Muste

•“Remorse cannot be coerced, it has to be discovered.” ~ Leland R. Beaumont

•“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and the whole world would soon be blind and toothless.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

•“Revenge is a dish best served cold.” ~Marie Joseph Eugène Sue

•“Think through the consequences of your actions for the next seven generations.” ~ Native American wisdom

Revenge is a bitter pill. Heed your mama's advice about revenge NOT being sweet. It won't make you feel better, and if anything, it will only make you feel worse about yourself.

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