Walking the dog this morning, I noticed my mind playing out a revenge fantasy that I have been harboring. Have you noticed how when people hurt us in deeply enduring and life-altering ways, we sometimes feel like the only way out of our pain and suffering is to hand it back to them in the form of revenge?
It goes a little like this:
We have been “wronged” and hurt, so we want those who hurt us to know how it feels.
We believe increasing their suffering will help alleviate ours.
We believe increasing their suffering will teach them something useful.
We believe that if they truly knew what it felt like, they would “get it.”
And if they got it, their hearts might break open
And if their hearts opened, then they’d care
And if they cared, they would be motivated to help us make it better.
And if they were motivated to help us, it would mean that we would finally matter.
And if we really mattered, and they cared, reconciliation would be possible.
At the heart of vengeful acts lie deep desires for empathy, mattering, caring, being valued and worth something, and for shared reality with fellow humans.
In my experience however, revenge is an entirely self-sabotaging strategy. Attempting to return suffering never makes anything better.
It doesn’t “teach” people anything other than to be more defended, self-protective and insulated. And, more violent. It simply breeds more suffering.
Parker Palmer once wrote, “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”
However, if we let it, suffering can break our hearts open, increase our capacity for kindness and expand our ability to deeply empathize with our fellow human beings.
How? Here are a few practices I’ve found useful:
Nonresistance: When suffering comes, I own it and process it.
Instead of trying to get rid of it, I attempt to metabolize it. I allow my heart to break open (instead of hardening in bitterness.)
I practice leaning into the pain, the hurt, the grief without making it bigger or smaller than it is: without adding drama and exaggeration to the experience, and without numbing out and disconnecting from it either.
I allow myself to feel my deep care and compassion for myself and others on this planet.
I invite suffering to tenderize me, sensitize me, transform me, strengthen me.
Suffering is a gateway to greater empathy with the whole of humanity, if I let it be.
Honor My Needs:
When I watch fantasies of revenge arising within me, it’s a cue for me to get some empathy from trusted others.
I remind myself that I do matter to myself, and to others, that I am worthy, valued and significant in other realms.
I seek out shared reality and companionship with people who can remind me of my true, compassion-based nature.
Act in Alignment with Those Needs:
Revenge is a violent, reactive act.
Inherently disempowered: although forceful, it has no power to transform things for the better. None.
I instead choose to act in alignment with my deep needs and desires – not in reaction to unexamined impulses and feelings. I Love Up the part of me that feels revengeful, and I give her oodles of empathy, but I do not allow her to lead the way or make choices for me. I find new strategies, new behaviors, new thoughts and new things to pay attention to that are in alignment with my deep desire to consistently bring compassion to suffering.
Our hearts will either break open, or apart.
This poem on Kindness by Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye beautifully expresses the ways in which kindness can help us know what to do with our suffering. (The poem starts a minute and a half into the video if you want to skip the introduction).
If you prefer, read it here.
Want to engage more with heart-opening practices?
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