Why Forgiveness Is the Best Form of Revenge

“Daniel: You could’ve killed him, couldn’t you?

Mr. Miyagi: Hai.

Daniel: Well, why didn’t you then?

Mr. Miyagi: Because, Daniel-san, for person with no forgiveness in heart, living even worse punishment than death.”

– The Karate Kid Part II

Every morning at 5 o’clock, an obnoxious bird situated in a tree outside my bedroom window sings to attract prospective mates. The singing takes on an abnormally whiny quality, with Jerry, the name I’ve assigned to this bird, yelping on and off for 2 hours. (This past week, he has been singing for as long as 5 hours.)

The repetitive nature of Jerry’s singing has increasingly chipped away at my sanity, causing me to fantasize about the myriad of ways I could scare, hurt or kill him—so long as it meant that I could reclaim high quality sleep and become a functioning member of society again. Tossing and turning in my bed, waiting for the singing to stop, I ponder whether I should hose down the tree, throw rocks into it, or shoot paint balls at Jerry with hopes of permanently crippling him. But I never harmed a hair on his body.

It’s easy, when you’re frustrated, agitated or outright on the verge of an emotional breakdown, to redirect your anger toward neutral people or objects. That driver cut you off on the highway? Better flip him off. Didn’t get the grade you wanted on that exam you studied so hard for? Better write a poor review of the professor during the course evaluation. (I’ve always been known to punch holes in the wall after a bad day at work. That’s not something I’m too proud of.) And yet, in the heat of the moment, the displaced aggression feels like an instinctual reaction—a knee-jerk response to an unfavorable stimulus that thwarts the acquisition of a goal.

For a moment, think of a traffic jam that leaves you running late to work, a house fly that crawls on your television while you’re watching a movie, or a difficult customer who tries to return ground beef that spoiled over a week ago. Of course any rational person would want to act out against the objects of their frustration in those scenarios where nothing else but the pursuit of vengeance and setting the record straight pleases them more. But the greatest test of your resolve lies in consciously choosing to do the opposite of that which your frustration dictates. And it is in this vein that forgiveness, even when it has neither been earned nor warranted, is the best form of revenge.

When I say that you should practice forgiveness, I’m not saying that you should pretend like you haven’t been persecuted. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of people can and will persecute you at some point, and forgiving someone when they haven’t offered a formal apology is a tough pill to swallow. The question is, to what end will you rise above that persecution? Will you repeat history and blow up simply because you’re “angry, and that’s what angry people do”? Or will you take it as an opportunity to show restraint, setting the example for yourself that throwing temper tantrums is equivalent to sitting idle and doing nothing?

To really drive this point home, I would like to reference Chapter 1 (“Bury Your Boomerangs”) from the updated version of Dale Carnegie’s revolutionary book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. In this chapter, Brent Cole uses the example of President Abraham Lincoln, who learned from one of his advisers that General George Meade missed a crucial opportunity to close in on Confederate forces at the Potomac River and end the Civil War swiftly. Furious, Lincoln composed a letter expressing his monumental displeasure with General Meade’s failure to follow orders, and ambush the Confederates in time before they could slip away. The letter reads, “My dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.”

Cole explains that although President Lincoln had every reason to send the letter to General Meade, he didn’t—it would’ve only triggered resentment in General Meade towards Lincoln, and further compromised his leadership abilities. Cole also explains that, had President Lincoln disregarded the ramifications of the letter and sent it anyway, he would’ve “won the battle of words, but suffered in the war of influence”.

Ultimately, Lincoln conveyed to Meade his disappointment, but in a way that wasn’t an affront to his competency as a general. And his relationship with Meade, and by extension the tide of the war, were much better off for it.

Make peace with those who violate your trust. Love them even when they don’t love you. Most importantly, learn to master your anger before your anger masters you.

Categories: Lifestyle

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