Paul Cockayne – 07791 970406 – firstname.lastname@example.org
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The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and the retaliatory French air strikes got me thinking about – among other things – revenge.
The desire for revenge is a common human reaction to being hurt, I think. It is an emotion that I encounter often when I work with couples after an affair. Frequently the non-affair partner feels the desire to exact revenge, sometimes on their partner, sometimes on the third person. And this desire for revenge can take various forms – sometimes physical violence, or destroying property. Sometimes it’s an attempt to destroy reputation by revealing the affair – “telling the world”. Or people may attempt to exact emotional revenge, by having an affair themselves, or possibly by confronting their partner or the third party publicly, to humiliate them. Or much in the news recently is “revenge porn” – another attempt to humiliate, I think.
So, if we are hurt, there can be a desire to “hurt back”. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, as the saying goes. The French air strikes are just that, I think. The question of whether air strikes will eliminate terrorism or whether they provoke it is open for debate – and whatever your point of view on that, such arguments do not translate back to personal acts of revenge. It is difficult to argue, I think, that having a revenge affair will help to stop people having affairs in the future.
There can be an element of competitiveness in seeking revenge. Suppose someone cuts you up on the road – they get ahead of you – a place in front of you. They are one rung higher up the ladder and you are one rung lower. And that can provoke some people into acts of revenge – road rage.
Justice, too, is as important element in revenge. If your partner has cheated on you they have done something bad – they have broken the rules, the marriage vows, the agreement – by having sex with someone else. And when people break rules they have to be punished, don’t they? That is justice, and as the legal system in the UK does not punish adultery, people sometimes feel justified in “taking the law into their own hands”. Rules have been broken, the gloves are off, anything goes.
Does revenge help? I think for an individual, an act of revenge can result in a feeling of triumph or elation. However, very often this is a temporary thing – after that initial reaction the avenger can be left feeling regretful about what they’ve done. They can be left feeling that their act of revenge has really been rather petty – that they have descended to the same level as their partner. Rather than being better than their partner, they are just as bad. Again, the road rage example is valid, I think. If another road user drives badly, cutting you up, then you chasing them, ramming them, accosting them, are reactions that are out of proportion and in retrospect can feel silly. Better surely, to drive sensibly yourself, to keep clear of the other driver, with the thought that if they carry on driving like that, they will probably live to regret it.
Some people do seem to regard life as a competition – even a war. The small transaction – of being hurt and extracting revenge – can be a battle won. And each battle won is a step towards winning the war. The trouble with this way of thinking is that where there are winners there are also losers, and if we adopt that competitive approach to our personal life – to our relationships, we can end up hurting people who are close to us, and doing more harm than good.
The pacifist will argue that retaliatory air strikes are not the way to eliminate terrorism. They will argue in favour of dialogue and mutual understanding. Whether that is the best way forward with ISIS, I will not pretend to know. But in our personal lives, we are not at war, and stepping away from the conflict – attempting to understand and compromise – is far more likely to bring a positive outcome than an act of revenge.