( 5 min read)
I looked down at the passenger seat. The black handgun I had stolen from my father’s sock drawer stared back at me. I had driven to the location where the gas station attendant had molested me 10 years before. At 17, I knew no other way to heal, so I decided to try revenge. I was ready to shoot him, to make him suffer like me.
Of course, he was long gone. I pulled over, tears of rage streaked down my cheeks. I never considered myself a violent person. I avoided all physical confrontations. Most of the time, I wore the persona of the quiet, geeky kid. But like everyone, I had a temper too.
A few weeks later, my grandmother confronted my childish anger. In my desire to exact a petty revenge for a revoked privilege, I had broken a figurine she cherished. Grandmother sat me down and looked me squarely in the eyes.
“You have a monster inside—we all do—and if you don’t get control of it, it will cause you a lot of grief. Indulging that monster,” she told me, “is like picking up a hot coal to throw at someone else—you end up burning yourself in the process.” She bent down and lovingly cleaned up the shards of the beloved object I had destroyed. The silence that followed was its own tortuous gift.
It took me many years to really “get” the lesson of revenge. In my victimhood, I was cruel. I turned in my mother to our church leaders so she would be shamed and excommunicated. I cheated on my wife. I even hit a beloved partner in anger—for the petty justification of being called “coward.”
Years after the gun incident, I finally began sobering up from the unconscious beast that controlled me. One sunny afternoon, I found myself at a Gay Pride parade. Across the street from me was a cordoned off area where anti-gay protestors held picket signs with “God hates fags,” “Burn in hell,” and “AIDS caused 9/11,” scrawled on them. They were not a happy bunch. They yelled out a constant stream of epithets to the rainbow-colored partiers all around. There was a dark cloud over them; the hate, anger, and fear were palpable.
But what really caught my attention was the group of anti-anti-gay protesters next to them. They were yelling back equally nasty obscenities to the enraged mirror in front of them. An even darker cloud hung above this second group. It reminded me of something I had recently seen on social media. A good friend from our spiritual community had reposted a news article about some racially motivated violence. His post screamed, “I HOPE THESE IGNORANT, RACIST BASTARDS DIE A HORRIBLE DEATH!” In his zeal for justice, he had shown his own bigotry. Racist and snob were living in the same self-made hell-hall of mirrors, just like the pride protestors I was watching now.
I puzzled on our deep human desire for revenge—the belief that meeting hatred with hatred will somehow fix our problems and magically unite us. Gandhi’s famous words had me thinking hard: “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” My own self-justified, gun-toting rage showed me that this was all too true. If, by some ridiculous miracle, the gas station attendant had been there that day, shooting him would have solved nothing, and would have inextricably screwed up my own life.
I reflected on my own angry outbursts over the years. Every one of them was laced with self righteousness—the “us versus them” sickness that has taken hold of our world. In this blinded state, whole classes of people get shoved into badly-labeled boxes based on religion, ethnicity, skin color, education, or political persuasion. In us-versus-them, both sides are victims, both are perpetrators.
Once, a beautiful and kindly woman from Iraq tearfully described to me the horrible details of the bombings, rapes, destruction, and terror in her village. “What Americans thought were liberators, we saw as terrorists,” she said. The great spiritual teacher, Byron Katie, once commented that “victims are violent people.” I have found this to be true.
Revenge is taking God’s responsibility into your own hands, which only creates a new reasons for revenge.
Author Laura Hillenbrand wrote, “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.” The problem with revenge is that in the moment, it seems like it will be sweet, but the aftertaste is always bitter. Blood cannot wash away blood. You cannot be both bitter and happy.
I meditated deeply on this subject. “What about really sick perpetrators, such as murders and child molesters? Don’t they deserve the worst punishment?”
That was a hard one for me. I had been molested, and I believed that I would suffer to the grave with what my abuser had done. How could I ever forgive him? Wouldn’t that mean I had excused his actions?
I sat with that for a very long time, until the paradox finally lit me up. I was abused 40 years ago, but I kept the abuse alive with the story of it in my own mind.
I let him re-abuse me by granting him the blame. I came to see that blame is the ultimate in powerlessness.
The more I woke up, the more I realized that I had to take full responsibility for my own experience, even for the very worst of it. It was not an easy thing to do. But one afternoon, I was meditating on my abuser, and a deep curiosity arose. I wondered, “What was his experience? What really happened to him that he felt driven to pass hell on to me?” A whole vision came through me. I saw the gas station attendant, being abused when he was a boy, in ways I can never know. He didn’t know how to deal with it either, and was unconsciously compelled to act out in ways he surely knew were wrong. Along with my new curiosity, a deep compassion for him welled up. I felt sorry for him. I even loved him. Finally, I paid merciful attention to him.
And I paid merciful attention to me too. I realized, I still hated myself, because in my innocent-child curiosity, I had returned to the gas station a second time to do what I knew was really bad! That little fact had been the source of my deepest shame. When I saw that, I had compassion for me too. My monster was tied to that guilty, hurt child that went back for more.
The words of Martin Luthor King echoed through me. “Hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to stick with love.”
So I forgave him. And I forgave me.
Healing comes with connection, compassion, and forgiveness. It is at-one-ment with Reality—including our tormentors, which are also our teachers. For the worst enemies, the Nazarene suggested, forgive them 70×7 times. There’s wise council there, even when it feels impossible. Remember, forgiveness doesn’t imply non-accountability or boundariless stupidity. But real forgiveness does require full compassion and unconditional love. What you hate inside of yourself will be reflected in what you hate outside. Forgive what is unforgiven inside, and your eyes will begin to see differently.
Are you a survivor of abuse? Do you struggle with forgiveness? Do you churn for revenge?