Recently, I sat next to a woman on the long bus rise to the country who spent an hour on the phone tracking down the owner of the hair salon she’d been at earlier that day. (We’ll put aside for this discussion that you are asked not to use your cell phone on the bus unless it’s an emergency, out of consideration to your fellow passengers.) Once she got the owner, she launched into a detailed complaint about the service she’d received from a stylist, firmly suggesting that the stylist needed to change her approach to customer relations and that the owner needed to appreciate the importance of good customer service in retaining clients. But instead of the thirty-odd words I just used, she lectured the owner for at least 10 minutes about these issues and the risk this particular stylist presented to his livelihood. In other words, she was trying to exact revenge, to get the stylist fired, or at least scared of losing her job.
She may have convinced herself through some perverse logic that she was trying to be helpful. But the simple truth is, she’d had a worse experience than she had hoped for and someone was going to pay! (Interestingly, she never said the quality of work was bad. She complained only about what she perceived as rudeness. As best I could piece together, the stylist wasn’t deferential enough to her backseat driving of her haircut.)
Clearly, revenge is harmful. As a society, we would want to discourage it anyway. It can escalate into all sorts of trouble. Wars even. And as children of God, we are called to something much higher. But it’s also worth noting that this woman on the phone didn’t seem like she was having any fun. She was filled with anxious energy. She may have gotten some petty satisfaction from delivering her attack and fantasizing about what happened to the stylist as a result, but overall she was agitated and unhappy through the whole process. Most likely, there had been additional anxious hours leading up to her phone calls, while she anticipated the aggressive task. And there would be anxious hours ahead, probably infringing on needed sleep, while she reviewed her actions and wondered how she might have done it better.
Call it bad karma or call it the hell on earth of being separated from God, but the way it works is that if you act unlovingly towards others, you are drained of love yourself. The Greek tragedies, Shakespeare and advice in most every spiritual tradition tell us that the desire for revenge hurts the person seeking it; that in extreme cases, it can consume and destroy them.
The spirit of Love, not legalism
The oft-quoted Old Testament line “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20) was not encouraging revenge. Rather, it was putting a limit on it, a legal principle called lex talionis, or the law of retaliation, which dictates that the punishment fit the crime rather than exceed it. In other words, it was saying: If they take an eye, don’t kill them. If they steal from you, don’t chop off their hand. Even this ancient voice of moderation is hard to embrace today for its casual brutality. But then, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said we were misunderstanding the Jewish law by looking legalistically at what it allowed, rather than at the spirit from which it comes. He says not only should you not kill a person who steals from you, but you shouldn’t even seek to regain your stolen goods. Using an extreme example to make the point, He says to give the thief more. (Matthew 5:38-41) What a hard teaching! As I said in my column about acceptance, the core of it is simple, though: Let it go. Don’t hurt yourself seeking to right some perceived wrong in the material realm at the expense of your spiritual wellbeing.
Revenge does not serve any proper survival role. The original harm is already done. Revenge will not undo it. So then, why do people want revenge? As best I can tell, revenge is an attempt to fix the fact that the material world is sometimes unfair. People feel wronged by someone and see them seem to get away with it, and they want to bring what they think is God’s vengeance down on the person in order to restore balance.
Jesus is saying, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Leave to human courts that which is material. Let an attacker have their little victory. Let it go. Return to Love. Because if you get yourself caught up in being hateful towards another person, no matter how seemingly justified you may be, you are shutting yourself off from God. And that’s hell.
Do you have an experience with the harmful effects of revenge, to others or to yourself? Have you experienced the freedom of letting go of a desire for revenge? Share your experiences here in the comments below, or write me at phil (AT) bustedhalo [dot] com.