A Plight Caused By Vengeance (and The Role of Forgiveness)

Vengeance is a form of justice where we seek another person or group’s misfortune after that person or group has caused pain to us. There is an allure to vengeance that can captivate the human soul, and while vengeful we often think and act willfully to hurt and destroy, with the expectation that once we succeed we will feel righteous and victorious.

Revenge in the Movies

One of my favorite depictions of revenge is in the movie V for Vendetta, where a masked revolutionary seeks revenge from a government that has oppressed him and left him disfigured. By the end of the movie he succeeds and blows up Parliament in a fit of honor and integrity.

While watching the movie, it’s hard not to feel good when V (the main character) finally succeeds in his destructive endeavors, but is this really how revenge often plays out in the real world?

My guess is no. Having the intentions to cause suffering in another person is physically and psychologically destructive to the intention-holder. Even in the romanticized depiction of vengeance in V for Vendetta, it is clear that some of V’s actions ultimately lead to self-destruction (watch the movie if you haven’t already).

I think the same can be said for most thoughts and acts regarding vengeful behavior. Intentions to hurt rarely lead to positive outcomes for others or ourselves.

Let’s look at another depiction of revenge, this time in the movie Old Boy. In this movie both the protagonist and antagonist seek retributive justice against each other. Dae-su told a rumor about Woo-jin when they were just teenagers, this lead to certain consequences. Woo-jin responded by kidnapping Dae-su for 15 years, tortured him, and ruined his life. As Dae-su was locked up he grew strong feelings of hatred for his kidnapper (can you blame him?) and spent years training in solitude with thoughts of revenge. By the end of the movie both cause immense suffering to each other, but neither find true happiness or closure in their ways.

This seems to be a more accurate depiction of vengeance. Both character’s stories turn into a vicious cycle where one negative deed leads to another. Because they never moved on to a more clear and positive set of intentions (which isn’t always easy), both ended up destroying themselves and their dignity.

In both of these movies the protagonist has violent and destructive intentions, yet I find myself rooting them on and hoping they succeed. Sure, it’s just a movie and it’s all fiction, but I think this allure can be captivating to a certain degree in the real world as well. I know I can identify times in my life where I have at least shown wishful thinking that something goes wrong in another person’s life, mostly because that person treated me poorly at one point and I never fully forgave them.

Is Forgiveness the Answer?

As our society grows increasingly secular, I think “forgiveness” is developing a bad reputation as an outdated Judeo-Christian value. We imagine it in the sense of “turn the other cheek,” and we see forgiveness as catalyst to invite others to keep hurting us.

However, I think forgiveness is still an important value. Holding grudges is psychologically and emotionally draining. Just being able to let go of them can be like a weight being lifted off of our shoulders.

Plus we can forgive someone without ever telling them or inviting them back into our lives. There is no need to welcome further abuse, we only need to make the mental shift to hope that person sees the err in their ways and improves themselves for future well-being. While our good will alone won’t change or fix the other person, it will free us from the false desire for adequate justice (which is often skewed in the heat of revenge, or simply out of our control).

Can You Forgive Hitler?

Hitler didn’t just commit crimes against Jews, he committed crimes against humanity as a whole. This has made him out to be one of the most hated men in history. The quintessence of evil. Our society and culture has no problem depicting Hitler being tortured or burning in hell for all of eternity.

This led me to a question I frequently ask people: Can you forgive Hitler for what he did? I think many people may answer no. They will add that what Hitler did made him an evil person through-and-through, and this has ruined all chances of him ever being forgiven. In fact, he rightly deserves any negative thing that happens to him if there is an after-life.

While I understand this viewpoint, I think it is a product of frustration, anger, and revenge, and not a particularly enlightening view of humanity as a whole. Buddhists would argue that Hitler had a Buddha-nature like everyone else. What led him to his bad deeds were accumulations of negative karma: his upbringing, his environment, his genes, his relationships, as well as the negative karma he reaped through his own ill intentions and poor judgment. One shouldn’t excuse Hitler for his actions, but one can be led to believe that under certain conditions it takes a tremendous amount of will-power to not turn into a monster. If any of us were born in Hitler’s shoes and lived his life, would we have ended up in a similar way?

I don’t expect to persuade you in less than 250 words why you should forgive Hitler, but I do hope that my question gives you an estimate on your capacity to forgive in general.

Empathy’s Role in Forgiveness

I mentioned stepping into Hitler’s shoes to give you a better understanding of Hitler’s actions. What I am describing here is nothing more than empathy, our ability to think and feel about the world from another person’s perspective.

Psychologist Frederic Luskin from the Stanford Forgiveness Project has been training people to forgive for almost a decade now. He considers it a very important skill to both mental and physical well-being (especially reducing stress), and he considers empathy one of the central components of this skill. When we step outside of our narrow view of the world, we either better understand the faulty ways of our victimizers or we find that they never had intentions to hurt us in the first place. Having this kind of knowledge can make it much easier to forgive.

If you feel hurt or betrayed, imagining yourself in the other person’s shoes and trying to understand why they did what they did can sometimes help you alleviate your ill-feelings toward that person. This doesn’t mean that what they did was acceptable, but it is important to know that we all have the capacity to make mistakes in a given situation under certain conditions. I’m sure you too can think of times when you have made poor decisions and hurt another person. You can just as well use empathy to sympathize with these past misdeeds you’ve committed.

Forgiveness Is About Control

Another aspect of forgiveness Luskin emphasizes in his training is the fact that we don’t always have control over the bad actions and character of another person. Seeking to change or “get back” at someone who is not willing to change, or who is no longer in our lives, can be a great source of stress and discomfort. Often we can minimize this stress by re-focusing on what is in our control. Forgiveness provides the tools we need to let go of this resentment and thus concentrate on more important things in our life. When we sincerely forgive someone they no longer possess our minds or distract us from living mindfully in the present.

A Strength in Not Forgiving

Psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, in her book Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It’s Better Not to Forgive, offers an alternative perspective to forgiveness. She feels that when we feel obligated to forgive it can often make our forgiveness insincere or make our feelings of anger feel unjustified. She finds that it is healthy to experience anger and grief when someone has betrayed us, and that it is not necessary to forgive someone, just not to hate them.

According to Safer, many of her clients feel there is too much emphasis on forgiveness in society, and that if they don’t do it there is something wrong with them. She says, “It’s a double-whammy. First something terrible happens to them, and then they feel bad that they can’t fix it through forgiving and loving.”

In addition, we hate being told to “get over it.” People make it sound so easy because they don’t seem to relate to how angry we feel in a given moment. Sometimes when we hear this advice we will do just the opposite in spite of the other person because how dare they tell us how to feel. Safer feels that if forgiveness is to come, it has to come naturally. And if it doesn’t ever come, that is okay too. However, there is one kind of forgiveness Safer believes is unavoidable to mental health – forgiving yourself.

    “Forgiving yourself is the only essential kind of forgiveness, because you are the only person you can’t cut out of your life.”

What do you think?

Is forgiveness something that can be extended to everyone or should we only reserve forgiveness for those who deserve it? Can apathy or indifference be enough to curb our desire for vengeance or ill-will? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

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