What Keeps Us Kind When We Want Revenge
By Z Zoccolante
Recently, I was listening to an audio story told by Brene Brown. She talked about shame, one of her famous topics, and told a story of a lady who she always leaves feelings slimed. Brene had gone to a prestigious convention and was feeling guilty for not being home for a week with her kids. As she’s waiting at school to pick up her kids, this witch walks up to her car with the plaster smile and says all pleasant and sweet candy condescending something like, “It must have been hard being away from those babies” and ‘it must be hard letting other people raise your children’ (and p.s. by other people she meant the husband and their parents).
The second I pictured these words rolling off this lady’s tongue, I had the urge to punch her directly in the face or to use my favorite swear words. Brene didn’t do this but when she retells the story she let you know what she was thinking of saying to the woman. Everyone in the audience emphatically cheers at the cruel comeback.
We’ve all been there. We’ve all wanted, or wanted others, to choose the jugular cut. There’s something we like about revenge, about payback, and making someone suffer just enough.
But most of us are taught that we shouldn’t repay evil with evil. “Doesn’t it say to turn the other cheek,” someone told me this past week to rile me up in conversation.
Even though we’re taught kindness, and taught that the mean person is probably suffering that’s why they’re mean, we often still want to retaliate.
In psychology, there’s a defense mechanism called displacement. It’s used when we’re angry but we don’t feel safe to express that anger so we take it out on something smaller. For example, when you want to tell your boss to stick it where the sun don’t shine but instead keep your mouth shut and go home and yell and your partner and kids and kick the cat or the dog. Displaced anger for your boss is now being shown to your family and your pets.
So what makes us to the kind thing when we want to get revenge, when we want to punch someone in the nose, or scream in their face? What keeps us from fighting poison with poison? What keeps us kind?
My view is that we all have these vicious parts of us but they’re kept in check by consequences and our empathy. They’re kept in check because most of us (with few exception) are good humans even if we’ve done shitty things.
We have these moments of realizing that we’re good humans. Like this week, I approached my bedroom door to see a waspy thing buzzing by my jacket. I took a piece of clothing nearby and smashed it to the floor and in one swoop vacuumed it up in the dust buster that was a foot away.
Then as I set the dust buster on the floor, I saw movement and realized that the waspy thing was still alive. I had a quick second of realizing I could walk away and leave it there. It was, after all, just an insect.
And then horror and sadness washed through me. In that second, I had seen the part of me that could walk away. Out of sight, out of mind. And I didn’t like it one bit. That’s not the person I am. That’s not the person I want to be.
So I trudged the dust buster down stairs into the backyard, took it apart, and had to coax the waspy thing out with a stick on to the rocks outside. In that moment, when it was free again and I knew it would be ok, it felt as though I got an invisible gold star. Not one of those, “Look at me and how great I am gold stars,” but the of the stars that say, “Right on. You’re doing a good job. I saw that tiny act and I’m proud that you did that because that’s the person you want to be.”
Even though I carelessly almost murdered the waspy thing, I saved it in the end. Well, maybe we’re just even waspy thing. Let’s say that. We’re even and I’m sorry.
In the end, what keeps us choosing kindness, when faced with other funner options, is that we all have kindness in us. We all hold ourselves to an invisible standard of the person we want to be. At the end of the day, we all want to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and say, “Ok self. Yeah, I saw those shitty things, and I saw those awesome little things. You’re doing a good job being the person you want to be. Keep going.”