“Two ex-prisoners of war meet after many years. When the first one asks, ‘Have you forgiven your captors yet?’ the second man answers, ‘No, never.’ ‘Well then,’ the first man replies, ‘they still have you in prison’.” ~Jack Kornfield
In the journey of life, we often feel emotionally hurt by other people. Usually we quickly recover from our heartache and grief, and are able to move forward. Yet, there are times when we feel stuck to our past, feeling so upset and miserable that hurting back those who hurt us seems to be the only way to ease our pain.
But does revenge ever work? The short answer is no and below you’re going to find out exactly why.
Revenge Isn’t Sweet
“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” ~Confucius
The belief that revenge is sweet is constantly reinforced by our culture. For example, have a look at the most popular films and novels — which are nothing but a reflection of our society’s collective mind — and you’ll quickly figure out that many of them depict revenge as a desirable thing to seek after.
A common story theme they share is that of two characters — a “good” and an “evil” — who are fighting against each other. The “evil” one has done something wrong to the “good” one, and the latter’s life task is to get even by taking revenge against the former, even if that would mean risking his life. Once that is achieved, the “good” character is portrayed as the brave hero who derives tremendous satisfaction from his accomplishment.
Contrary to what those fictional scenarios may depict, the reality is that revenge is counterproductive — that is, instead of making you feel better, it only leads you to experience further pain. Here’s how:
- Firstly, seeking revenge is detrimental to your well-being. In particular, it’s increasing your stress levels, thus impairing your physical and emotional health.
- Secondly, believing that revenge is crucial to your happiness, you might continually want each and every individual who’s hurt you to pay the price for their actions. The result? Wasting your precious time trying to ruin other people’s lives instead of improving your own.
- Thirdly, by taking revenge you’re acting exactly like those you claim to abhor, thus turning into the worst version of yourself. Realizing this, you’re soon going to regret what you did, and find yourself immersed in remorse and guilt.
- Lastly, many of those you take revenge on will likely want to revenge back on you (for revenging on them!) This way you’ll unintentionally help create a never-ending cycle of interpersonal conflict that will inevitably bring tremendous suffering into your life.
Revenge is nothing but a quick fix — initially, it might indeed feel sweet for a short while, but soon we come to experience its bitter aftertaste. So what’s the point of it?
Revenge as a Failed Attempt to Restore Peace and Justice
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many people would argue that they don’t seek revenge solely in order to feel happier, but also to restore peace and justice, being under the impression that punishing others for their misdeeds will teach them an important lesson: To never commit them again.
Yet, revenge never achieves this aim, and the reason is that punishing others for their wrongdoings doesn’t address what made those people want to hurt us in the first place. Therefore, we can’t understand and help get rid of the root-causes of their aberrant behavior.
So why do some people intentionally hurt other people? Because they themselves have been hurt a lot in the past, and violence has become their way of dealing with the cruel world they’ve been brought up in. They are not “bad” or “evil” — they’re just unfortunate to not have received plenty of love from their family and wider environment, and as a result haven’t learned to be loving towards those around them.
Seen this way, revenge is an attempt to attribute responsibility to those in a position of vulnerability. It is common for us to despise or even hate those who mistreat us, as well as put all blame on them for their actions, being unable to see that they are victims of tremendous hardship, and that it must be extremely hard to heal from their emotional wounds. And, instead of showing them compassion for their misfortune, we punish them for their misconduct.
Now, when we’re revenging on such people, not only do we cause them further suffering, but we also help strengthen their belief that the world is cruel and that the only way they can cope with interpersonal problems is through violence. In other words, we urge them to become more hostile and abusive, which is the very opposite of what we wanted to achieve in the first place — peace and justice.
From Seeking Revenge to Offering Forgiveness
“An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
If revenge doesn’t work, then what does?
To truly recover from being emotionally hurt by others, we need to forgive.
Forgiveness means to let go of your hatred toward those who caused you pain and compassionately release the desire to punish them. By doing so, you’ll feel unburdened from resentment and experience a state of inner peace. In addition, you’ll not anymore waste your time and energy trying to change the past, and move on with your life, focusing on what’s truly important to your well-being.
Image credit: Unknown
Of course, offering forgiveness is much easier said than done, especially in the competitive society we’ve been brought up in, where everyone is conditioned to fight against everyone else, out of their egoistic desire to prove themselves superior to others. So how can one learn to forgive?
To forgive, you need to realize that all people, including you, are imperfect and hence are bound to make mistakes from time to time, which sometimes affect other people. When you seek revenge, you desire to punish someone for their mistake and make them feel the very same painful emotions that you’re feeling. In such a psychological state, your thoughts become unkind and destructive, and your heart has no space for forgiveness. But when you understand that no person alive is perfect, you begin to look at their actions from a whole different perspective. You see the unconscious suffering that motivates them to act the way they do, as well as that they’re helpless victims of their past. Then, a desire naturally arises within you to forgive them, even if they’ve previously broken your heart.
Having said that, it’s important to point out here that forgiveness refers to the actor, not the act. In other words, to forgive does not mean to condone the misdeeds of another. Therefore, when I say forgive, I don’t imply that you should run back to those who’ve been hurting you out of compassion for their wounded psyche. Not at all. Stay away from such people, defend yourself if needed, and make sure they never mistreat you again. However, from a safe distance, forgive them for their mistakes and wish them well in the future.
I would like to end this article with one of my favorite short stories that is carrying an immensely beautiful lesson on compassion and forgiveness (whether the story is based on historical facts is disputed; regardless, the message it conveys is profound). So here it is:
The Buddha was sitting under a tree talking to his disciples when a man came and spat in his face. He wiped it off, and he asked the man, “What next? What do you want to say next?” The man was a little puzzled because he himself never expected that when you spit in someone’s face he should ask “What next?” He had no such experience in his past. He had insulted people and they had become angry and they had reacted. Or if they were cowards and weaklings, they had smiled, trying to bribe him. But the Buddha was like neither, he was not angry, nor in any way offended, nor in any way cowardly. But just matter-of-factly he said, “What next?” There was no reaction on his part.
But Buddha’s disciples became angry, and they reacted. His closest disciple, Ananda, said, “This is too much. We cannot tolerate it. He has to be punished for it, otherwise everybody will start doing things like this!”
Buddha said, “You keep silent. He has not offended me, but you are offending me. He is new, a stranger. He must have heard from people something about me, that this man is an atheist, a dangerous man who is throwing people off their track, a revolutionary, a corrupter. And he may have formed some idea, a notion of me. He has not spit on me, he has spit on his notion. He has spit on his idea of me because he does not know me at all, so how can he spit on me?
“If you think on it deeply,” Buddha said, “he has spit on his own mind. I am not part of it, and I can see that this poor man must have something else to say because this is a way of saying something. Spitting is a way of saying something. There are moments when you feel that language is impotent: in deep love, in intense anger, in hate, in prayer. There are intense moments when language is impotent. Then you have to do something. When you are angry, intensely angry, you hit the person, you spit on him, you are saying something. I can understand him. He must have something more to say, that’s why I’m asking, “What next?”
The man was even more puzzled! And Buddha said to his disciples, “I am more offended by you because you know me, and you have lived for years with me, and still you react.”
Puzzled, confused, the man returned home. He could not sleep the whole night. When you see a Buddha, it is difficult, impossible to sleep anymore the way you used to sleep before. Again and again he was haunted by the experience. He could not explain it to himself, what had happened. He was trembling all over, sweating and soaking the sheets. He had never come across such a man; the Buddha had shattered his whole mind and his whole pattern, his whole past.
The next morning he went back. He threw himself at Buddha’s feet. Buddha asked him again, “What next? This, too, is a way of saying something that cannot be said in language. When you come and touch my feet, you are saying something that cannot be said ordinarily, for which all words are too narrow; it cannot be contained in them.” Buddha said, “Look, Ananda, this man is again here, he is saying something. This man is a man of deep emotions.”
The man looked at Buddha and said, “Forgive me for what I did yesterday.”
Buddha said, “Forgive? But I am not the same man to whom you did it. The Ganges goes on flowing, it is never the same Ganges again. Every man is a river. The man you spit upon is no longer here. I look just like him, but I am not the same, much has happened in these twenty-four hours! The river has flowed so much. So I cannot forgive you because I have no grudge against you.
“And you also are new. I can see you are not the same man who came yesterday because that man was angry and he spit, whereas you are bowing at my feet, touching my feet. How can you be the same man? You are not the same man, so let us forget about it. Those two people, the man who spit and the man on whom he spit, both are no more. Come closer. Let us talk of something else.”
Story source: Intimacy: Trusting Oneself and the Other, by Osho