(Started Oct. 13, finished Oct. 21
A great school teacher and great friend recently sent me a copy of Harold Kushner’s “Living a Life That Matters” (Resolving the conflict between conscience and success). It’s full of interesting/provocative ideas and applications. In light of the holocaust workshop this past weekend, I wanted to share a couple of passages I was reading the following morning from the chapter entitled “Wild Justice: The Seductive Pleasure of Getting Even.” Would love to hear thoughts on this from anyone when you have a few moments.
Excerpts from “Living a Life That Matters” Harold Kushner
…when someone hurts us, part of us wants to pay the person back, to get even, to give him what he deserves, while another part of us is uncomfortable at the prospect of having to lower ourselves to his level in order to get even. We feel justified, even righteous, in getting back at someone who has done us wrong, but at the same time we feel more than a little bit morally compromised.
The fact that so many great plays and novels ( Hamlet, the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, The Count of Monte Cristo) have the theme of revenge at their core, and that popular novels and movies about revenge have the ability to grab us emotionally, should tell us how deeply we feel on the subject. I have heard movie audiences cheer when the fictional hero finally catches u with the fictional villain … Revenge, and fantasies of revenge are among the strongest emotions we feel.. They are nearly universal, nearly irresistible, and often deeply troubling.
The title of this chapter is taken from a remark by the sixteenth century English writer Fancis Bacon: “Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more men’s nature runs to, the more ought the law to weed it out” In that one sentence, Bacon tells us four important things about revenge:
– It is something that a lot of people are drawn to.
– It is natural, instinctive, not something we have to learn.
– It resembles justice but is unlike justice in important ways
– It is undesirable. It is natural the way weeds are natural, and if not checked, it will crowd out healthier emotions even as weeds choke off the more desirable cultivated plants.
I define revenge as punishment in the name of justice, tarnished by taking pleasure in hurting the person being punished… can we at least count on society to protect good people by imposing fines and prison terms on those who would harm us? Or do we have to take justice into our own hands?
… revenge is sweet in the contemplation, but bitter in the carrying out. The target of our revenge deserves to be hurt, and part of us is eager to hurt him because of what he did to us, but another part of us feels diminished by doing the hurting.
The ambivalence in getting even is that our consciences condemn it even as our souls crave it…
I can appreciate that ambivalence. I have sat in movie theatres, my heart rejoicing at the retributive violence of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan even as my head was condemning the mindless destruction…
That moment when the community as a whole claimed for itself the right and responsibility to punish criminals, taking the role away form the injured parties, represents one of the great advances in the history of civilization. Punishment could now be administered coolly, objectively, by an outsider who would feel no vindictiveness and take no personal pleasure in its administration. It would be justice without vengeance. Susan Jacoby, in her history of revenge, Wild Justice, writes, “One measure of a civilizations complexity is the distance between the aggrieved individual and the administration of justice.” Problems arise however, when people fear that they cannot depend on society to administer justice, the courts are slow, unreliable, or inclined to play favorites or that the law is full of loopholes that let the guilty escape. We then face the uncomfortable choice between letting a guilty person go free and taking the responsibility for punishing into our own hands, with the bitter aftertaste and sense of moral compromise that often entails.
Carl here again, I could go on copying out of the book all night, but just wanted to share a taste with you and get your thoughts in connection to the holocaust, the society we live in now, and even the “petty” wrongs that are committed against us (or we commit against others) often unknowingly every day, that you would not go to court for.
Looking forward to your thoughts
Carl – World Outside My Shoes