Start with the idea that every feeling serves a purpose. A feeling is an internal signal to behave in a certain way. All feelings have a survival advantage, direct or indirect. Being fearful causes the fight or flight reaction, which obviously works to ensure survival. Angry feelings prod people into asserting themselves at those times when they are frustrated. A similar account can be given for all feelings. (See my blog post “The purpose of feelings.”) Other feelings such as grief, when they occur, are the result of being unable to satisfy more basic urges, in the case of grief, the urge to be with those whom we love but who are no longer with us. However, to say that we are inclined to act on a particular feeling is not to suggest that doing so is always advantageous or appropriate. Or, to put the matter differently, we have evolved feelings that are useful to us in most circumstances; but not all. There are times when that signal to act should be ignored.
For all intents and purposes, we cannot cancel out our feelings. We could pretend not to feel a certain way, but it would not be true. If I were to kick you in the knee, you would inevitably have certain feelings toward me. Even if you were a saint, you would become angry—although you might also be afraid or even concerned that I give evidence of having lost my mind. If someone were to menace you with a gun, you would inevitably be afraid. But anyone can imagine certain situations where expressing or acting on those feelings would not be sensible. If you become angry at your boss for scolding you unfairly, you might be well-advised, nevertheless, to refrain from answering back. Perhaps not always, but definitely sometimes. There are occasionally dangerous situations in which you should stand quietly rather than running away or fighting. In fact, the situation I describe above where you are menaced with a gun may be just such a situation. Wrestling with the man for the gun may end badly. Running away is likely to incite him to shoot.
Still, with that caveat—that feelings should be ignored sometimes—they should be recognized as a signal to act. One such feeling is the desire for revenge. There are certain situations which may incline one to want to strike back at an adversary or to revenge oneself for a slight or an injury; and there are situations where anyone would feel that way. The desire for revenge is commonplace and understandable. The appeal of books like The Count of Monte Cristo or The Godfather comes partly from seeing an aggrieved party fight back successfully. Stories of success against the odds are often accounts of individuals “getting back” at people who previously treated them as inferior. It is easy to identify with men and women who have been persecuted and who then strike back at their persecutors. We enjoy seeing a bully get his “comeuppance.”
But the pursuit of vengeance is usually decried. In the Bible, God is quoted as saying “vengeance is mine.” In other words, refrain from taking revenge yourself. Leave it to God. In another place (Mathew 5: 39) Jesus says to “turn the other cheek” when slapped—(although I think his remark in context can be interpreted to mean that the best way of making your persecutor seem small and ineffectual is to turn the other cheek. Or, to put it differently, that approach is a kind of fighting back.) Countries get into wars because of the urge to redress some previous insult or injury; and everyone recognizes that wars are terrible. But even in personal interactions, vengeance is usually discouraged. Why? And, for that matter, what purpose in the first place does the urge to strike back serve? Why do people so commonly feel the wish to retaliate? Where is the survival benefit in feeling the need to get even?
Tit for Tat
In game theory, there are theoretical strategies that can be seen to award an advantage to those who employ such strategies in competitive situations. The most effective and most successful is called Tit for Tat. The rule is to cooperate at first with a competitor and then respond to him by doing whatever he does. If he cooperates with you, then you should cooperate with him. But if he tries to cheat, you should cheat back. If he then (learning his lesson, perhaps,) cooperates once again, you should cooperate again. But, if at some point he once again tries to take an unfair advantage, you should once again behave similarly. Of all the complicated strategies one could take in a game where two people are competing, Tit for Tat has proven to be the most successful. Of course, Tit for Tat recommends a kind of revenge. Put differently, in most situations, it pays to cooperate with a potential adversary. But if he, or she, does not cooperate, the best strategy is not to cooperate right back. Otherwise, the other person will continue to press an unfair advantage. I think this strategy is the unspoken rationale for the emergence of a wish for revenge. Getting even maximizes the advantage an individual has in situations of ongoing competition. “Standing up for yourself” is the best strategy for dealing with a bully. That means striking or answering back. (By the way, that does not mean I would say to a child who has been bullied that he should fight back. If he were able to fight back, he would not be in the position of being bullied in the first place.) Please note that Tit for Tat allows for forgiveness. If your opponent once again cooperates, you do too.
Society in general, and schools in particular, have a stake in maintaining a kind of civil discourse that does not include violence; and so getting even with a bully by punching him in the face, however effective such a strategy might be, is not permitted. In society at large there are laws to prevent violence. Someone who has been injured is not allowed to search out her own justice by taking revenge, otherwise one act of revenge will lead to another, and then to another. There are notorious clans such as the Hatfields and McCoys who have been killing each other across generations. As in Tit for Tat, there has to be a place for forgiveness, otherwise all future cooperation is lost.
It is for this reason that the search for vengeance is always discouraged. I think the benefits of suing someone, such as they are, do not include the likelihood of achieving some kind of justice; but a law suit, however dragged out, does provide finality—a result that may leave the litigants dissatisfied but which discourages them from hitting each other over the head.
In my everyday world, I have to discourage some men and women from exacting revenge.
I had a patient who was increasingly enraged by a neighbor parking his car in front of his house. When he complained to the police, they pointed out to him that it was a public street, and his neighbor was entitled to park there. Since the law would not defend my patient’s rights—as he saw them—he slashed the tires of his neighbor’s car. I leave it to the reader’s imagination to guess what happened next. My patient was able to escape jail finally after being put on probation for a year.
I see patients who are at war with their neighbors about their illegally sun-bathing in the front yard, or not putting out their garbage on the right day, or building a fence that encroaches by a foot on their property, or not silencing their dog at night, and so on. Not infrequently, I have to argue against acts of revenge that are plainly against the law. Sometimes, I am able to convince an aggrieved person about the power of reconciliation. After all, they are neighbors.
Similarly, I see men and women who are out to take revenge on former lovers, on employers who have taken credit for their work, on speeding drivers who have passed by them too closely on the highway, and even on parents. Perhaps especially on parents, for those who are most in the position to affect the lives of others and most likely to be resented for acts of unfairness or cruelty—or abuse. Siblings can be selfish. Lovers can be unfaithful. Friends can betray their friends. Sometimes the inclination to get even can pose a serious risk of violence. Stalkers are sometimes motivated by such feelings. Some troubled individuals have an image of themselves so fragile that they will shoot someone who disrespects them by cutting ahead of them in line or by playing loud music too near to them. Accounts of such people appear frequently in the newspapers. Some others take revenge indiscriminately on the wrong person or even on an object. One of my patients was caught in the act of clobbering a parking meter with a baseball bat.
But I see patients who not only feel wronged, they not infrequently have been wronged. They come to my office planning elaborate revenge, most of the time something that is not likely to redound to my patients’ benefit, or to anyone else’s benefit. I try to help them by providing an alternative.
Sometimes a simple way of retaliating can substitute for a plan that is illegal or unworkable. It is important to find a strategy that allows the injured or offended parties to maintain their own dignity and self-respect. It is desirable, if it is possible, to find some way of answering back when treated unfairly. (See my blog post, “Heading off a Murder.”)
Common situations of this kind occur in a work setting. A patient may come to me complaining of a boss taking credit for her work, or lying to her about salary or work responsibilities, or even flagrantly harassing her. Instead of sending the boss an inflammatory e-mail, which can be taken out of context and used against her, I might recommend a measured approach to Human Relations. (In certain situations, at other times, I might not.) I might recommend documenting the mistreatment for use at a later time. I will not suggest the patient leaving the job impulsively when she needs the job. Simply involving the patient in a strategy for dealing with her difficult work situation will lessen her tendency to strike back indiscriminately. I often point out to secretaries that they are frequently in a position where they can catch the mistakes of a boss—and they can then choose to do nothing! That is a revenge not likely to require their paying a price.
Similarly, there are strategies one can recommend to deal with an unfaithful spouse or a physical attack by an acquaintance—without resorting to violence. I once had to talk a patient out of killing a man whom he thought had abused his sister.
Reading these remarks, it is possible to pick out the essential element in these strategies. They take place over time. The bitterness that leads to thoughts of revenge fades over time, as do all feelings. This is the reason why men and women do not seek revenge on their parents for being mistreated as children. They have grown up. They are no longer under the thumbs of those parents. Their parents then seem to have changed. They no longer even seem to be the same people.
Emotions are a signal to act now. If a strategy for getting even can be devised that allows time to pass, that vengeance is not likely to be destructive, and it will not encourage further retribution in return. The signal fades with time.