On a recent ordinary day, I searched the news online for the phrase “in retaliation” and instantly found a bevy of headlines betraying the human condition:
“South Korea fires at North Korea in retaliation for loudspeaker attack.”
“Couple attacked in retaliation by 3 men.”
“Rocket strikes [against Israel] an Iranian retaliation.”
“Amnesty: Israel committed war crimes in retaliation…”
“Russia destroys Western cheese, meat and fruit in retaliation for sanctions.”
In fact, retaliation is such a commonplace in human relations that we might easily conclude it’s an irrevocable part of our nature. There is even some evidence that the revenge motive exists in other animals, including chimpanzees.
But however much we may be naturally imprinted with the desire to “get even,” we also have the capacity to reflect on our motives, look for their roots, and decide whether acting on them will truly serve us.
That reasoning capacity is probably more advanced in us than in chimps — although you might not think so from reading the daily news.
There’s an old saying: “Man is the animal who knows that something has gone wrong.”
In one way or another, we’re all tempted to get even for some fundamental wrongness in our lives, and sometimes that effort may not even look like revenge. Perhaps we’re born poor, so we dedicate our lives to making money; or we’re born sickly so we struggle to become fit and healthy; or we’re born into a loveless environment so we search endlessly for romance, family, or some sense of belonging.
All the world’s countless conflicting political agendas are founded on the conviction that great injustices have been done to a society, culture, god, or the world at large—and thus any measure, including violent retribution, is justified in order to set things right. When any group of people is convinced that they have been victimized, they will look toward retaliation as ‘justice.’ Then they will set about victimizing their enemies, keeping the vicious cycle of retaliation going forever.
In one challenging lesson among many, the modern spiritual teaching known as A Course in Miracles directs students to “Let all things be exactly as they are.”
To consider this choice for even a moment is to become immediately aware of just how dissatisfied we are with “all things exactly as they are.”
There’s always something wrong that needs to be corrected, reversed, or avenged.
And so our minds immediately fly to all the things we must do to set things right or even things out, driven by the sweet hope that somehow all will be right with the world when vengeance or correction has been achieved.
Any kind of meditation can be seen as the antidote to retaliation and vengeance. In simple sitting with acceptance of exactly “what is” at any given moment, we slow down the inner race to fix the world and set things right. And we do that by becoming aware of how often thoughts of correction and revenge arise within our minds. Seeing how often and intensely we are tempted to get even is the beginning of compassion for ourselves, not to mention others who are driven by revenge.
Compassion is the beginning of the end of war, which might otherwise be seen as an inescapable drive of human nature.
“Sweet revenge” is junk food for the soul.
The brief rush that retaliation provides will always be followed by disappointment, guilt, and still more unending dissatisfaction with the chaotic world created by our own expectations.
There is a real joy to be found in setting things right, but that always involves opening one’s mind to mercy first.
Author: D. Patrick Miller
Editor: Renée Picard