Standing in line at the checkout lane I read the headline, “Rot in Hell.” The headline referred to the perpetrators of an unforgivable atrocity—the Boston Marathon bombers. The sentiment was understandable. I didn’t disagree with the disgust and desire for justice our nation has felt at such vicious acts. But something about the boasting of that hateful sentiment made me uncomfortable. It was a celebration of hatred as a virtue.
Public displays of hatred are nothing new. Humans have never shied from reveling in collective glee at the stoning of another of their own species. Yet as technology has changed, so too has our ability to hate those we know and do not know and to let that hatred blossom. We now have a camera to record in graphic detail every crime and every social violation, so that rallying calls to hate take little effort. When we see in living color the results of a remote but horrific crime, when we read the salacious details of the lives of those accused of crimes or social misdemeanors, when atrocities and private shames are turned from news to a twisted entertainment, our revulsion is as readily triggered as is our fascination with knowing more about it.
In newsstands and across the internet, one can read any number of headlines mocking, insulting or condemning people as evil, as unattractive, as unforgivably troubled. Readers leave hateful comments, often in goofy capital letters, boasting of how unapologetic they are to broadcast their rage at people they do not even know. On television, protagonists who in years gone by would have been described as unlikable and bitter are now applauded for their unrelenting vengeance. And in the workplace or school, people are encouraged to not let go of their anger, but to feed their hatred toward those labeled “bullies,” and to broadcast their rage all across the internet so the whole world knows the bully is hated and deserving of destruction.
But here’s the thing. Just because we have reason to hate, doesn’t mean it makes us stronger. Or more virtuous. If anything, expressing our hatred makes us weaker and more limited in our capacity to feel compassion. Now I’m not talking about the Boston Marathon bombers or bullies or anyone in particular. This is not an essay about bad guys. What I’m talking about is how easy it is to feel hatred—even hatred for people we do not know—and how corrosive and pointless it is once we feed it.
There’s an old Buddhist saying that hatred is like a burning hot stone you want to hurl at someone; the longer you hold onto it, the more you’ll get burned. Yet few do let that stone go, because by associating the emotions of anger and hatred with the values of strength and morality, we create an impossible trap for ourselves. We resist relaxing our emotions and our minds, because to let go of that anger means we are saying the wrong we rail against was actually okay. We are morally aligning ourselves with the bad guys. We are relinquishing our power because anger and hatred are powerful emotions; they have the power to instill fear and anxiety in others. Let that go, and what power do we have left?
The power we are left with is the power to heal. There are many reasons in our lives to feel bitter and vengeful, to rage at injustices and want wrongs to be righted and wrongdoers to pay. But just because there is reason to hate, does not mean that doing so will make us any stronger or any wiser. The more we hold onto our hatred, the more we blind and deafen ourselves to the world beyond our rage. The more we cling to injustices we’ve suffered, the more we are unable to find justice in our own lives—by living them toward a meaningful purpose. And the more we justify our hatred as deserved by the target of our rage, the more we sentence ourselves to the undeserved prison of our darkest emotions.
Everybody hates. At one time or another in our lives, we will meet people we instinctively loath; people who betray us profoundly; people who do us such serious wrongs, that to forgive would only be possible for a saint. It is not that the emotion of hatred is “wrong,” but that what we do with that emotion is a measure of our souls. When we express our hatred, it may be momentarily cathartic, but it will also reinforce that emotion. And the more we echo that emotion, by repeating it, the more we re-experience the events that triggered it. Even when the emotion is over an event that did not concern us—such as a crime in another part of the country—by repeatedly expressing our outrage, our minds begin to respond as if we had experienced the event ourselves.
In other words, we batter ourselves emotionally by subjecting our minds to a repetitive loop of messages that tell us how damaged we have been by another, how powerless we really are to withstand it, and how necessary it is to demonstrate our moral worth in comparison to the target of our hatred. Such self-inflicted wounding is not beneficial; it is perverse. Understandable, yes, but perverse nonetheless because the very values we tend to associate with anger, rage and hatred—strength, moral virtue, power—are the very virtues our hatred corrodes within ourselves. But does that mean we must forgive?
No. To let go of one’s hatred does not mean one must forgive, which is a broad topic for another time. What it means is to recognize the limitations of hatred in healing the wrongs that have been suffered. A far more powerful place to begin is to acknowledge how very wrong an act and its actor may have been, but to refuse our hatred any chance of taking root inside our hearts or minds. When thoughts of hatred hit our hearts, we learn to acknowledge them, then push them out and replace them with thoughts that bring us calm and laughter. And when those thoughts of hatred still return, we push them out again. And again. By not dwelling on the thoughts that keep our hatred burning, we begin to heal.
Yet letting go of hatred is hard, because sometimes it is indeed deserved by the subject of our wrath. But make no mistake; hatred is no virtue, it’s a wound. When someone cuts us, we do everything we can to stop the bleeding. When someone hurts us, we do everything we can to stop the pain. When someone does something to fill our hearts with hatred, why then don’t we do something to stop our suffering from the blood-boiling rage that hatred nurtures?
Rot in Hell might be an understandable sentiment for a whole variety of bad guys. Think it, feel it, and then let it go. There’s no more certain way to get to Heaven, than to turn away from hatred’s Hell.