We’re all human. And humans are all, to one degree or another, vengeful. Even those of us who work so hard to overcome the lesser angels of our nature love a good car-keying breakup song or can’t help dropping a snarky Yelp review when crossed.
Why do we feel the need for revenge? It doesn’t seem to have an obvious biological value, yet that’s the likely point of origin. Science demonstrates that vengeance activates the reward centers of our brain. So that’s at least an indicator that biology is somehow involved in our desire for revenge.
But why? What purpose does revenge have for our biology? Why is it hardwired into our brains that we need to get back at someone for pissing us off? Clearly, it’s something we deem to be of great importance to our civilization that we curtail this natural desire through our laws and faith systems designed around a goal to sublimate the human instinct for revenge. Christianity is based almost entirely on this single idea alone: Love your enemy.
One study acknowledges that what the angry mind really wants is not so much the meting out of punishment or suffering, but to accomplish a change of heart in those who have trespassed against us. We want the other person to change, to acknowledge what they did, to understand how it made us feel, to promise never to do it again. Most of the time, that’s a tall order. But that’s what we want.
And there’s a clue here about why we are intrinsically wired for revenge. The clue is in our desire to accomplish a change of heart in the one who acted against us.
It’s true that revenge feels good. At least for a moment. It’s the subject of nearly all television, film and books. We cheer when the villain gets their “reward.” It translates into our own lives and personal experiences where we think we will feel as good by committing our own vengeful acts as we did when seeing the villain get theirs. The irony is that revenge gives us only a short-term boost of positive brain chemicals followed by a long period of slow deterioration of that feeling. We eventually end up feeling worse than we did before. We end up re-injuring ourselves. The villain wins in the end to the same degree as our unwillingness to let our sense of vengeance go.
It turns out that there are deeply biological reasons for revenge. They hinge upon the fact that we are a communal species. Biologically, revenge is a social deterrent. Through our retributive actions, be they wise or not so much, we are attempting to cultivate behavioral change for the better within our tribes and social groups. When employed judiciously, revenge is actually meant to prevent negative actions taken upon us in the future. It’s meant to deter predators or those who would encroach upon our territory and modify behavior among the members of a society. It is also a demonstration of prowess and strength, things that are of prime importance in reproduction of any species. Standing up for ourselves is attractive.
But knowing that standing up for ourselves can go too far — because we are a greedy species — our tendency toward gluttony will take the form of revenge if not careful. We can deteriorate into obsessively fixating on getting back at those who have hurt us. Hence, the formation of laws and life practices.
Having demonstrated that revenge is an inevitable reality for us all, how might we choose to handle it? Of course, there’s plenty of advice out there. But how to choose from among them? When in doubt, always choose the most loving alternative.
I practice a form of revenge, whenever possible, that entertains me to no end. Kindness. It really drives an enemy crazy. They don’t know what to make of it.
Years ago, I used to love to shovel my cranky neighbor’s sidewalk in the winter. He was so mean he even made a report once to the city’s building department that I am gay. (As if that somehow would make a zoning impact upon the community?) He was a perfect candidate for a revenge of utter kindness. He really had it coming to him.
I don’t think I ever enjoyed shoveling so much in my life as I did his sidewalk, watching from the corner of my eye as he peered out through the curtains. I would imagine him flummoxed and confused. He was far too old to shovel for himself, and as the laws require the sidewalks be cleared in front of everyone’s homes, he actually needed someone to do it. But he had no friends of which I was aware and certainly was too cheap to hire someone. I know he was a stickler for law and order. It probably rankled him that the sidewalk wasn’t clear. He may even have worried about getting a citation. He needed me. Ha ha.
It’s true that he may have been sitting inside thinking he was the one taking revenge upon me rather than the other way around. He may very well have thought that he was the winner of this little “battle.” But I know he was wrong. I’m just as happy to entertain a thought that he was smugly satisfied, because the brain chemicals we both had were good ones, and I’m the one who caused it.
In the final analysis, it’s up to us how we manipulate our desire for revenge within us. There are many things about our human nature we cannot change but for which we can create balance. The prime directive is to feel good. Not just in the short term, but also the long term. The main goal of life is joy, and anything that interferes with that is anathema. It will not rise to the top, for it is not natural to us.
Our biology may wish to enact measures to protect itself and its interests — that is logical. But make careful note of this desire and take steps to ensure that what tastes good right now won’t make you sick later. Revenge is a drug with harmful side effects. See to it that you make loving use of it. Surprising and positive changes will occur that you could not have imagined.
Congratulations in advance.
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster. He is the producer of The UU Virtual Church of Fitchburg and Lancaster on YouTube and host of the Our Common Dharma podcast series. Email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.