On a holiday in Capetown with my 16 year old daughter in 2006, we toured the townships and the Museum of Apartheid. It is an experience we have never forgotten, and this poem, from the museum, has become a special touchstone. Our tour guide had lived through the days of apartheid and its end; and he spoke of Nelson Mandela’s speech to black South Africans as apartheid was dismantled. “Mandela told us we must forgive… and we knew that if Mandela could forgive, after all he had suffered, then we could forgive too, despite everything.”
Listening now to NATO and members of the new regime in Libya ask the Libyan people to resist their urge for vengeful reprisals against their abusers, I think of the energy and effort it takes to control that natural instinct to turn on those who have caused pain; and of what can help people to do that. A dream of the future helps: how things could be, how you want them to be. Our instincts, first and foremost are to survive… and then to thrive…. We thrive on dreams, that need clear, future focussed energy, if they are to be realised. Energy that turns back to focus on vengeance, cannot move forward and so the dream is at risk. And yet, revenge pushes for expresssion.
In “Beyond Revenge” Michael E McCullough sets out with blinding clarity the complementary roles of revenge and forgiveness. He roundly rejects the contemporary view of revenge as a sickness for which forgiveness is the cure. Drawing on convincing evidence from evolutionary psychology, he shows how the desire for revenge is a universal impulse, rather than a sickness or a problem. The urge for revenge (seen in most animal species as well as man) is a solution: it solves the problem of threats to co-operative human effort, a way of keeping group members in line with a common and ambitious dream: the impulse to thrive. Revenge is a solution, not a problem: it serves to maintain co-operation towards both human survival and creative efforts that cannot be acheived by one person. According to McCullough, revenge alone is not enough: those who have transgressed must also have the opportunity for redemption, to be brought back into the clan that has avenged their actions. Forgiveness plays this role. So revenge and forgiveness combine to maintain collective effort and the human survival and development that results.
Nature is clever: it makes the things we need for survival pleasurable. The pleasure centres in the brain are activated by food and sex; and also by revenge: by the sight of our enemies suffering. Revenge is not driven, as previously thought, by a cycle of rage, but by a drive for the pleasure of hurting those who have hurt us. Vengeance, it seems, maybe as crucial to our survival as food and sex. Hence the expression, revenge is sweet. We can see the evidence of this in the images of Libya on our TV screens, as we witness the heady pleasure of the brave rebel fighters dancing in the palace of their vanquished dictator.
This reminded me of the Greek myth of the three Furies, the Goddesses of Revenge, that is a part of the story of Honor’s Shadow. The ancients knew the healthy formula for punishment and redemption: transgressions must be avenged; the correct person must pronounce a verdict on the wrong-doer, who must express remorse in just measure. Then vengeance is assuaged, and kindness can be expressed again, and the wrong-doer rehabilitated; the dream of a new future becomes a possibility again.
If this healthy cycle is interrupted, and the vengeful energy cannot be fully discharged, bitter rage prevails, with repeated and escalating attempts to achieve satisfaction.
My hope for the Libyans is that their dream of a free and democratic society is stronger than their natural desire for revenge; that both vengeance and forgiveness are expressed in a balance that is cleansing and clearing, freeing them from a cycle of oppression and bitterness.
Hold fast to dreams…..