The reason revenge doesn’t work

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by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Anyone with a ghost of a conscience knows in his heart that revenge is the domain reserved for criminals and Hollywood thrillers but it hasn’t any place in the lives of people who pretend for a moment to elevate themselves above the dregs of society or the fiction of cinema. Granted the subject can make for some rivetting reading and entertaining viewing (even, dare I say it, a catharsis), but it is otherwise a capitulation to moral turpitude. In the end we know we owe it to ourselves to avoid the bait.

Revenge: The action of inflicting hurt or harm on someone for a wrong suffered at their hands; a retaliatory measure.

The definition sounds simple enough and may even coincide conveniently with the "eye for an eye" theory which has the benefit of Biblical authority (Exodus 21:24). However, revenge has by contrast been described as "a boomerang – although for a time it flies in the direction in which it is hurled, it takes a sudden curve and, returning, hits your own head the heaviest blow of all" (John M. Mason). Revenge has also been depicted as "wild justice" (Francis Bacon) or "like biting a dog because the dog bit you" (Austin O’Malley). Yet there are others who are of contrary opinion: "Revenge is sweet – especially to women" (Lord Byron Don Juan); or such proverbs as "Revenge is a dish best served cold" (which has been interpreted as a persuasion to forestall vengeance until wisdom can reassert itself) and "Don’t get mad, get even" (which embodies the modern Western legal system’s goal to make the criminal "pay his debt to society").

The trouble with pay-back – at least on the personal as opposed to the institutional level – is that it springs from bitterness which like most deep feelings of rancour, enmity and hostility does nothing but promote heartburn in the vessel that harbours it. It is sadly true for those of us intent upon destroying our enemies that they frequently are unaware of our estimable preoccupation and thus the undertaking does little more than secretly diminish ourselves. Furthermore there is the possibility that the harm we imagine to have suffered is not real or may have been unintended In matters of the heart, as in matters of commerce, there exists the conceivability of misunderstanding such that our surreptitious efforts at retribution are entirely unexpected or unimaginable by the object of our cause. Often we are so driven in our sense of social justice that the proposed punishment in revenge far exceeds the original injury. To this detractors argue that revenge is a logical fallacy of the same design as "two wrongs make a right". As noble as the subject of revenge may have been characterized by Shakespeare (Hamlet) and others, perhaps it was best put by Confucius: "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves".

In the heat of the moment, however, it is more than an inductive leap for most of us to adopt scripture which prescribes: "Do not seek revenge…love your neighbour as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). As compelling as the philosophy may be against the enactment of revenge, more often than not we unabashedly – even audaciously – pine for it. Likely we may even go so far as to pretend we haven’t an appetite for it, but usually it persists. It takes a very special person to rise above it.

Recall the words of Francis Bacon: "The man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green". Herein lies the palatable and pragmatic advantage of avoiding revenge; viz., it spares us our own self-inflicted misery. Some may even assuage themselves to believe that passing it over elevates us above our enemies. In a word, revenge is corrosive. Liberation from the hackles of revenge must come from within. Yet even if one seeks to avoid retribution, it is not clear that we so easily forget notwithstanding that "to be angry is to revenge the faults of others on ourselves".

If nothing else one must weigh the advantages and disadvantages. The actions and behaviour of some people are perhaps intolerable but to indulge ourselves in the weaknesses of others may only prolong what is implacable vengeance.