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Five Biggest Problems With Revenge and Their Best Remedies

What are the best things ever said about revenge?

Kill Bill/Flickr Free Image
Source: Kill Bill/Flickr Free Image

This post will lay out the reasons that—both ethically and pragmatically—your viewpoint on revenge should be decidedly negative. I’ll back up my own unfavorable perspective on this all-too-frequent phenomenon by including a large variety of quotes that, to me, represent the wisest, most incisive thinking on the subject. And I’ll conclude by delineating (also with much “quoting support”) the most suitable, and satisfying, alternatives to avenging yourself against those who may have seriously hurt or wronged you.

But I’ll not critique the instinct for revenge, for I regard such a predilection as pretty much innate, or universal. The real problem, however, is what happens when this inborn tendency is actually executed. Although it may be impossible not to experience hostile emotions at the moment you’re feeling ridiculed, cheated, or betrayed, with sufficient self-control it’s altogether possible to talk yourself down from reactive rage and refuse to act in ways that could easily culminate in further defeat.

Still, the seething anger you’re likely to feel once deciding you’ve been cruelly derided or duped almost inevitably prompts the retaliatory impulse of revenge. And this is an observation that many writers have made—though here, as elsewhere, in illustrating this fact I’m obliged to be highly selective. For, in preparing this piece, I reviewed perhaps some 500 quotes on the topic, many of which said pretty much the same thing, though in different words. So here’s just a small sampling:

In moments of pain, we seek revenge. — Ami Ayalon

Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural. — William Makepeace Thackeray

Charlotte shrugged. “In the end, greed makes the world go round,” she proclaimed. “Although, revenge isn’t very far behind either.” — Ada Adams

Yet as understandable as wanting to take revenge may be, there are five key reasons to strenuously resist it and move beyond the initial impulse to—however “righteously”—strike back at the person (or people) who’ve hurt you:

1. Revenge Is Primitive, Barbarous, and Savage.

That is, there’s something not quite civilized about it. And it really can’t be validated as either ethical or sensible—at least not for individuals who wish to see themselves as cultivated or evolved enough not to “act out” feelings of animosity and risk making a bad situation worse. For to violate the golden rule and blindly follow one’s own boorish impulses isn’t anything to be proud of. Take, for example, the first (“unenlightened”) quote below:

"I'm a fighter. I believe in the eye-for-an-eye business. I'm no cheek turner. I got no respect for a man who won't hit back. You kill my dog, you better hide your cat." — Muhammad Ali

To me, this quote suggests the adolescent mentality of someone who believes that revenge is somehow synonymous with personal honor and self-respect (and dangerously confuses revenge with justice). To kill your adversary's innocent pet just to “get even" with him for slaying your own merely supports the dysfunctional belief that two wrongs make a right. Clearly, they don't: The second wrong only exacerbates an already bad situation, significantly subverting your own humanity in the process.

"Revenge is the naked idol of the worship of a semi-barbarous age." — Percy Bysshe Shelley

"Christian ethics demand that you should not take revenge. The paradox is, naturally, that Christians worship a God who is the greatest avenger of them all. Defy him and you burn in eternal hell, an act of revenge which is completely out of proportion to the crime." — Jo Nesbø

"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism." — George Washington

And consider the vicious sadism of this hyperbolically (ludicrously?) vengeful curse:

"May the fleas of a thousand camels invade the crotch of the person that ruins your day. And may their arms be to short too scratch." — Keisha Keenleyside

2. The Material, Psychological, and Spiritual Costs of Revenge Can Be Devastating.

So, consider this group of quotes:

"There is some comfort in killing that which has hurt you, but it is cold comfort. It'll destroy things inside of you that the original pain wouldn't have harmed." — Laurell K. Hamilton

“Someone once said that nothing costs more and yields less benefit than revenge, Aomame said." ― Haruki Murakami

"A society built upon a foundation of vengeance is a society doomed to destroy itself." — Richelle E. Goodrich

"An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind." — Mahatma Gandhi (This is one of the best known—and most damning—verdicts on revenge.)

"Someone wrongs us, we rarely (if ever) want to do the same thing back. Why? Because we want to do something more harmful. Likewise, when someone insults us, our instinct is to search for words that will be more insulting. Revenge always escalates." — Rob Bell

"An eye for an eye is never enough. Never, never, never." — Adrian Phoenix

3. Wreaking Revenge on Another Is Either Corrupt or Corrupting.

It degrades the one pursuing revenge. Fighting evil with commensurate evil (i.e., “an eye for an eye”—or worse) certainly doesn’t engender virtue in the avenger; it seriously undermines it. Endeavoring to repay in kind some injury done to you ultimately makes you no better than the one toward whom you're so compelled to discharge your venom. So, as many writers have pointedly expressed:

"Funny thing about revenge. It could make a killer out of a nun." — Kevis Hendrickson

"Vengeance, retaliation, retribution, revenge are deceitful brothers; vile, beguiling demons promising justifiable compensation to a pained soul for his losses. Yet in truth they craftily fester away all else of worth remaining." — Richelle E. Goodrich

"Evil is always devising more corrosive misery through man's restless need to exact revenge out of his hate." — Ralph Steadman

"Revenge is an infection of the spirit." — Jonathan Maberry

"All we achieve by exacting revenge is to make ourselves the equals of our enemies, whereas by forgiving we show wisdom and intelligence." — Paulo Coelho, Aleph (a point that anticipates my final section, on the remedies for revenge)

4. Calculating and Carrying Out Revenge Is Foolish, Self-Defeating, and Even Stupid.

“Fool that I am," said he, "that I did not tear out my heart the day I resolved to revenge myself.” — Alexandre Dumas

"Revenge only begets more pain, because hurting people never has resulted in happiness or relief." — Bar Refaeli

"Revenge is often like biting a dog because the dog bit you." — Austin O'Malley

"Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." — Confucius [This is one of the earliest (and most popular) criticisms of revenge—and I don’t think it’s ever been surpassed.]

"This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well." — Francis Bacon

"The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer." — Laura Hillenbrand

"If one wishes for revenge, before you know it, a hurt as bad as the one wished for will come upon the wisher." — CLAMP

"Revenge is self-defeating. It will eat away at you until there is nothing left." — Chris Bradford

"Revenge is the easiest of emotions to understand and to manipulate." — David Anthon Durham

"Revenge was the emptiest of emotions. Apparently it motivated people to do the stupidest things as well." — Jeaniene Frost,

"Revenge is always sweet, it's the aftertaste that's bitter." — Joshua Caleb

"Revenge is not always sweet, once it is consummated we feel inferior to our victim." — Emile M. Cioran

"Careful what you choose for your purpose in life; revenge is a swamp you’ll get lost in." — Dannika Dark

5. In the End, Revenge Accomplishes Nothing: It’s Both Fruitless and Futile.

Note the overlap here with #4. Still, the earlier negative assessment stresses more the density or dim-wittedness of revenge; this one it's hopeless ineffectuality or uselessness:

I've learned that from a war ignited by revenge, nothing can be born, but sorrow. — Ohtaka Shinobu

Revenge doesn't stop. — Daniel Craig

Blood doesn’t wash away blood. — Persian Proverb

Revenge does not long remain unrevenged. — German proverb

To the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. — Herman Melville [From Moby-Dick, which is perhaps the American “classic” on the futility of revenge. To retaliate against the White Whale for losing a limb to him, Captain Ahab purposely “re-provokes” him, this time losing nothing less than his whole life (not to mention his entire crew—except, of course, the narrator Ishmael.]

Disappointment is the end of revenge; the drops of blood in the blade, the painful tears in the cheek, and the hollowness in the heart. — M. F. Moonzajer

To be angry is to revenge the faults of others on ourselves. — Alexander Pope

Revenge proves its own executioner. — John Ford

The tree of revenge yields no fruit. — Lili Wilkinson

Revenge is barren of itself: it is the dreadful food it feeds on; its delight is murder, and its end is despair. — Friedrich Schiller

It is useless to meet revenge with revenge; it will heal nothing. — J.R.R. Tolkien

I'd killed him in the end, but revenge only makes things all better in the movies. In real life, once the villain is dead the trauma lives on inside the victims. — Laurell K. Hamilton

Revenge . . . is like a rolling stone, which, when a man hath forced [it] up a hill, will return upon him with a greater violence, and break those bones whose sinews gave it motion. — Jeremy Taylor

Now let’s take a look at the best alternatives to acting out one’s indignity through ruthless retaliation. For, as should be transparently obvious by now, such vindictiveness doesn’t really resolve the wrong that may have been perpetrated upon you. Yet to let go of such a primal impulse requires that you somehow assimilate—or better, “self-heal”—your perceived injury. For only then are you free to move on with your life, rather than get caught up with what could be an everlastingly vicious cycle.

So, with the supporting quotes below, it’s wise to think about how you could:

1. Assert Your Honor and Rectitude by Foregoing Revenge.

The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury. — Marcus Aurelius

No revenge is more honorable than the one not taken. — Spanish Proverb

In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior. —Francis Bacon

For man to be redeemed from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms. — Friedrich Nietzsche

Life can be savored only if you look to the future and leave vengeance to the gods. — David Gemmel

I shall revenge myself in the cruelest way you can imagine. I shall forget it [!]. — John Steinbeck [And finally—not to say, ironically]:

When someone does you wrong, don't get obsessed with revenge. You might find that "wrong" was actually "right", just disguised in a wicked wrap. — Joan Marques [yes! ‘that’s what a later analysis might just reveal.]

2. Transcend Revenge Through Forgivenes.

Never does the human soul appear so strong as when it forgoes revenge and dares forgive an injury. — E.H. Chapin

Any story about revenge is ultimately a story about forgiveness, redemption, or the futility of revenge. — Nick Wechsler

There is no revenge so complete [as in, I’d think, resolved] as forgiveness. — Josh Billings

Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. — Martin Luther King, Jr

May we not succumb to thoughts of violence and revenge . . . but rather to thoughts of mercy and compassion. We are to love our enemies that they might be returned to their right minds. — Marianne Williamson

3. Re-Channel Your Anger to Focus on Your Goals—Whether They Relate to Love, Success, or Achieving a State of Well-Being.

Curiously, as the following quotes abundantly demonstrate, such pursuits can be understood as at least partly vindictive—as in, "I'll show you! Your words [or deeds] will only drive me that much harder to outdo you!" Here, advantageously, the original taunt or insult positively serves to motivate personal achievement. The energy for revenge is rerouted so as to optimize chances for success. The perceived wrong, rather than turning the one perpetrated against their perpetrator, actually inspires them to work all the harder to realize their highest aspirations.

However much wronged they may feel, they make no effort to retaliate directly against their tormenter(s), but instead devote themselves to surpassing them. And by successfully realizing their ambitions, they put their opponents in their (secondary) place. Once and for all, they “show up” those who’ve hurt, tricked, or disparaged them; or embarrassed and humiliated them. And their final victory lies not so much in their defeating their antagonists but in defeating their antagonists’ unfavorable expectations of them. With consummate irony, their very success can be seen as largely attributable to those who earlier may have victimized them.

So, consider the pragmatic, forward-looking advice of the quotes below. All of them suggest how best to, well, “sublimate” revenge:

Living well is the best revenge. — George Herbert

Love is the best revenge. — Alyxandra Harvey,

The best revenge is massive success. — Frank Sinatra

Success is the sweetest revenge. — Vanessa Williams

The best revenge is to live on and prove yourself. — Eddie Vedder

The best revenge is living well without you. — Joyce Carol Oates

Gorgeous hair is the best revenge [!]. — Ivana Trump [okay, a little comic relief here]

In the end there is no greater motivation than revenge. — Mihael Keehl [ah-ha!]

I felt so painfully isolated that I vowed I would get revenge on the world by becoming a famous cartoonist. — Robert Crumb [creator, among other things, of the iconic “Keep on Truckin’”]

Revenge is a dish best served published! [vs, that is, “ . . . served cold”] — Lisa Kovanda

Most victories are, in the best way, acts of revenge. — Alain de Botton

The people who influenced me most were the people who said I would never make it. They gave me a thirst for revenge. — Colin Mochrie

Acting ... gives you the ability to reinvent yourself. They say that acting is the shy man's revenge. — Hayden Christensen

My former bullies pay extra to come backstage and meet me after shows, and I pretend not to know them in front of their friends. It is the most divine pleasure to exact the revenge of the brutalized child that resides within. — Margaret Cho

And note that this final group of quotes can be summarized by one additional quote—which (I guarantee) all of us will immediately recognize. Namely:

“He who laughs last, laughs best.”

A companion piece that might interest you, making critical distinctions between justice and revenge, is Don't Confuse Revenge with Justice: Five Key Differences.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.