Revenge and Forgiveness Part III: Revenge and the Road to Forgiveness

wordsAt the end of his killing spree, Adam Lanza committed suicide. Many mass murderers   do. Hitler killed himself at the end of his failed war. Suicide bombers have incorporated their own life’s end into their death–dealing technology. The burden of successful revenge (revenge exacted can often take a heavy toll on the psyche), the fear of retribution, and the incendiary beliefs of charismatic religion all contribute to this final destructive individual act.

Revenge, because it is dominated by feelings not logic, gets out of hand very quickly. It is untidy and moves in chaotic directions. The desire for revenge starts wars. The United States revenged itself for a “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor by declaring war in 1941 and ending it four years later by dropping atomic bombs on two entire cities in Japan. Ten years (and counting) of war followed revenge for September 11, 2011.

On a more mundane, but entertaining, level, screenwriters understand the human attraction to revenge—and can also discover early on how tricky meting out even fictional revenge can be. The hit TV series “Revenge” just keeps dishing out the payback in greater and greater circles as the writers scurry to keep the action alive. By the end of the first season, the complications of the plot defied objective analysis yet the twists and terns of revenge—and the objects of that retribution—keep on coming. The same is true in “real life.” Revenge takes on a life and a universe of its own.

Revenge Served Up Hot Doesn’t Satisfy

There is a well-known saying that revenge is best served cold. That’s part of the problem. Revenge rarely ends in a satisfying climax; revenge taken in the heat of passion doesn’t satisfy the urge. The assassin claims his victim and is hunted until he is killed, here engendering the Biblical cycle of the sins of the father visited upon the son and grandson unto the seventh generation.

Watching clients who came to me filled with revenge—rape victims, for example—made me realize how complicated the temporal quick-fix factor is and how it hampers resolution. Perhaps that is why so little is done with the emotion of revenge in professional and counseling sessions. We tend to instead focus on ways to “get past it,” to find it in our heart to forgive and forget. It’s a great idea, but how do we do that, as mere mortals? Most of the clients I’ve seen give lip service to early and easy remedies but in my experience that off-the-shelf medicine doesn’t last long, let alone “cure” anything.

That is not to say that forgiveness is not a wonderful goal, particularly in a political context when war is the alternative. South Africa, Rwanda, and Germany have pioneered judicial remedies that include dialogue and conciliation. Institutions such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa have spawned other inventive ways to deal with lesser conflicts in smaller venues.

I was once asked, after the fact, to consult on an adolescent suicide by a wealthy family suing an institution in which scapegoating was an embedded fact of life. There were many guilty parties, and my findings were used to settle the case out of court. I knew very well that one parent wanted “a day in court” more than the money, but she hadn’t prevailed because of pressure from the rest of the community to sue not prosecute. This person became dangerously depressed. Her need for revenge had not been sated.

Still Trying to Understand the Workings of Revenge

The facts of the case were ugly and for many months I brooded about the lost life and the successful cover up. I asked myself what victims really need to make their lives livable again. How often had I guided them away from their vengeful emotions and potential revenge, successfully producing “normal” behaviors yet doing so without raising alternatives, some of which may have been, let us say, frowned upon.

So I decided to write a series of thrillers about an alternative to both the therapy and the legal systems—books about revenge but not by way of simply recreating modern-day Robin Hoods or Batmans or Delta team avengers, where violence is equated with revenge. My goal has been to take what I know and have studied and pondered professionally to craft an up-to-date psychological solution in which my “heroes” sort out what perhaps is, in fact, truly needed to link revenge and forgiveness in the heart and mind of the scapegoat: revenge of the mindful kind.

Two “Revenge, Inc.” books later and with a third in the works, I’m as engaged as ever in my quest for that illusive yet vital link. It is an exercise in entertaining new ideas for addressing the age-old quandary of revenge and redemption, one that is as important for me to explore as it is for my fictional victims—and my readers.

See also:

Revenge and Forgiveness Part I: Scapegoating Paradigms for Massacres and Other Tragedies

Revenge and Forgiveness Part II: Adam Lanza as Scapegoat




  1. Damien Wilson says:

    Arthur – Thanks for your well articulated thoughts. I look forward to your muse – and reflections.

    (We met in Santa Fe years ago. I’m a Shostakovich life-long fan).

    Damien Wilson

  2. Je vais dire qսue ce n’est guère absurde …

    • What a remarkable comment. perpetrator’s rarely admit what they have done unless forced or perhaps joining groups or programs which suggest making amends. The ancestry you reveal cetainly predisposes you to continue the chain of violence to which you have added a link. I wonder what circumstances in your family, friends, marriage that pushed you so strongly. Perhaps abuse? I also wonder about the need for revenge at first and now psychologically undoing what you have done through service. I hope you are sharing this with someone who can listen, not judge, and help you to understand and continue your path.

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