By Robert P
Have you been bullied or persecuted? I certainly have. You would think that, having been victimized, I would vow never to do that myself – having suffered would have made me wiser, more noble, more enlightened. The social philosopher Eric Hoffer notes this is seldom the case – the oppressed usually can hardly wait until they can become the oppressors and get revenge. For every Nelson Mandela there are hundreds of angry souls demanding that you should do unto others as others did unto you. Sometimes I am one of them, and I am not alone.
We love revenge. I cannot even count the number of blockbuster revenge movies Hollywood has produced and the billions of dollars they brought in. Of course, there is the occasional book or movie that warns us how toxic vengeful hatred can be, like The Count of Monte Cristo. The Count is betrayed, imprisoned, brutalized, and left for dead, only to return and give back better than he got. In the end revenge is not sweet, for the Count is consumed by his hate and loses everything in life worth having, including the only woman he ever loved. As the adage goes, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves two old blind men who can’t eat apples or corn-on-the-cob.”
Cruel, mean, hateful people are transformed by their feelings. You can see flashes of it in their eyes and feel it in the spirit they carry. I can’t maintain this negativity for long – it feels too dark and too nasty, even when I feel I have every right to be vengeful. I do not want to live like this – it is too depressing and too draining. Perhaps this is why Jesus counsels, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you ” (Matthew 5:44). If I want to be spiritual (more than just pretend to be) I must be free from these feelings.
Intellectually this makes sense, but I had a hard time convincing my heart until I read this quote by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility” (Driftwood. 1857). This resonated, and I know it is true when I have bothered to try and understand instead of ignoring. Further, there is the whole “Christ-like love” that we are taught and try to implement in the Christian world. I cherished that concept. When I remember this quote, I truly do:
Every person that does any evil, that gratifies any passion, is sufficiently punished by the evil he has committed, by the passions he serves, but chiefly by the fact that he withdraws himself from God, and God withdraws Himself from him. It would therefore be insane and almost inhuman to nourish anger against such a man; it would be the same as to drown a sinking man, or to push into the fire a person already being devoured by the flame. To such a man, as to one in danger of perishing, we must show double love, and pray fervently to God for him, not judging him, nor rejoicing at his misfortune. (John Sergieff of Kronstadt. My Life in Christ)
I cannot count on life being easy or other people being friendly – even Jesus felt lonely and forsaken. Ultimately the inner peace, happiness and joy promised by the spiritual life cannot be abiding if they depend on people and circumstances I cannot control. But I can choose to be loving – no matter where, no matter who, no matter what. Nothing can take that away from me. In return, God promises me that “charity will cover a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Eric Hoffer (a religious skeptic) explains:
In the alchemy of man’s soul, almost all noble attributes – courage, love, hope, faith, beauty, loyalty – can be transmuted into ruthlessness. Compassion alone stands apart from the continuous traffic between good and evil proceeding within us. Compassion is the antitoxin of the soul. Where there is compassion, even the poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless (Eric Hoffer, “Beware the Intellectual,” National Review, September 28, 1979).
I like the idea of a detoxified soul. Even if forgiving may mean occasionally being taken advantage of. Even if my love is spurned and thrown back in my face. Even if my enemies remain unrelenting. Even when I feel confused and forsaken. This is not out of a sense of duty as much as a conviction that this is the way I choose to live, the kind of feelings I choose to feel, the kind of person I want to become. Period.