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Revenge: The Act of Getting Even

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"Payback's a bitch!" I remember hearing an alcohol/drug counselor saying this to a group of teenage boys many years ago. At the time, I thought, "What does that mean -- payback's a bitch?" I remember the boys looking back at him with blank eyes, silently saying, "You're wrong! You don't understand. I need to pay them back for hurting me. They need to be punished for what they did to me. It's my right and my duty to balance an injustice."

Our society also punishes people for doing the wrong thing. It's in the Bible, "an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth" (cf. Exodus 21:24). We hear and see it all the time in the media, and our judicial system is based on it. So, what makes seeking revenge an ineffective process?

The Process of Revenge

If we look at the process of revenge, we find two limiting paradigms at the foundation:

1. "I'm right and you're wrong," and you've victimized me. In the "I'm right and you're wrong" paradigm, I get to "get even" with you because, from my point of view, you did something wrong to me. Thus, I get to take revenge against you.

2. In the victim paradigm, you did something to me that I had no control over. You spoke mean or hurtful to me, you took advantage of me, therefore I'm honor bound to give back to you what you deserve. A challenging question shows up in both these situations: What's the right punishment and how much is enough?

What often happens is: You hurt me, then I hurt you back with a little more force (to prove my point or to teach you a lesson), then you hurt me back with a greater force, to save your honor, then once again I intensify my actions and I hurt you even more, and now we are in a cycle that goes on and on. We never seem to get to the point where everyone feels justified. The situation never gets to a point of being even or balanced. It's the old traditional "blood feud" between two warring tribes. On the global level, revenge seeking has been going on for centuries.

If Not Revenge, Then What?

If we don't seek revenge, then what do we do?

There's another quote in the Bible that gives us a direction. "Do not seek revenge ... love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).

Wow! That's tough. That means I'm supposed to accept you and me. I am not supposed to judge you or me. I'm actually supposed to "love" you and me!

The Chinese philosopher Confucius states: "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." He's suggesting that the desire for revenge hurts you as much as the person you inflict the revenge on. The person seeking revenge often becomes what he wishes to destroy.

When concepts like revenge show up in the Bible, or any other ancient texts, it suggests to me that we are dealing with a deep human condition that our forefathers have dealt with and have processed through on some level. Our job is to listen to what they said and apply their solutions to our current way of thinking.

So what do I do with this terrible thing you just said or did to me? I'm angry. I'm hurt. I am judging you for what you just said or did. If I can make you wrong, if I can see you as less than me, then I am justified in wanting to do terrible things to you because you "deserved it."

Breaking an Ancient Pattern

The first thing to do is to accept that you got caught in an old pattern of being "right" or being a "victim," and you want to strike out, you want revenge. You are human, and as strange as it might sound, this pattern is a normal human reactive pattern. It requires wisdom to be aware of this pattern. There's another old saying that addresses this process: "Forestall vengeance until wisdom can reassert itself."

So you're now aware that you're in your old pattern. This is a time to love and accept yourself, not to judge or beat yourself up. It's a time to express your hurt and anger in a healthy manner. Expressing your hurt and anger is a special process in itself.

So, I'm going give a quick way for you to express your hurt and anger in a way where you don't hurt yourself or others. Take out a piece of paper and for the next five minutes write, as fast as you can, how you feel you have been hurt or wronged. Go for it. Use a lot of four letter words. Don't read what you write. Now tear it up or burn it. If you still feel angry or hurt, do another five minutes. At some point, you will feel you have sufficiently expressed your angry or hurtful feelings.

Certain Questions Can Create a Learning Moment

After you have expressed your feelings, you can start to look at the situation as a learning opportunity. What did you learn about yourself, what did you learn about them, what could you have done differently to get a different outcome? These types of questions will help you regain your center and to claim a point of wisdom. It becomes an awakening moment. At this point, you can move into a process of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a process where we forget or let go of the hurt, but remember the wisdom or the lesson we were to learn. It allows us to understand what happened.

There are two old sayings I often tell myself in these situations. "Forgive them for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34) I believe if people truly knew the consequences of their actions, then they would not do hurtful things against others. The second saying is: "If they knew better, they would do better." We can only do what we have been taught. If we knew a better way to create loving and peace in our lives, we would do those things. When people know a better way, they usually choose that method. As with everything, I'm sure there are exceptions. When we are confronted with people who refuse to honor us, as well as our boundaries, we have permission to walk away. We don't have to stay and receive their abuse, we don't have to teach them, and we don't have to balance the action by seeking revenge.

Challenge To Respond Like a Master

My challenge to you is to be aware of the revenge process. When you get caught in the pattern, express your emotions in a healthy way, regain your center, claim your wisdom, forgive them and your self and move on in peace, loving, and joy.

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