“If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital.”—John Irving (via embracethevision)
Getting Revenge and Forgiveness: Science That Liberates Us from Reductive Analyses
by Krista Tippett, host
I first began to gain a kind of respect for the revenge impulse in human life when we worked, in the early days of this program, on a show about the death penalty. I came to understand that revenge was the original “criminal justice system.” For most of human history, prior to the rule of law, prior to structures of justice that transcend the messiness of human interaction, the threat of retaliation has been a primary tool humans possessed to pursue justice and also to deter cycles of violence. I’ll never forget Sister Helen Prejean, a great campaigner against the death penalty,
describing anger as a moral response. The question, of course, is where we let that anger take us.
Now, as Michael McCullough lays out passionately, science is able to document how normal, and purposeful, our instinct for revenge is. In the brain, the instinct for revenge looks like a “craving,” a felt need that begs for satiation. We do range into the realms of global geopolitics in this conversation — to the world around Joseph Kony in Uganda no less — Michael McCullough is just as interested in the mundane forms this craving takes: in our reactions to neighbors and irritating co-workers or to our political opposites.
The good news is that Michael McCullough’s research is also revealing that forgiveness is hard-wired in us — purposeful and normal. He says that to think of forgiveness as a trait of the weak and the vulnerable reflects a simplistic imagination about evolutionary biology. We tolerate and excuse the deficits and mistakes of those we know and love and work with —
and even those we don’t love but need to work with — many times each day. Forgiveness doesn’t work in real life as it too often works in media portrayals of dramatic stories of conversion and high emotion. It happens constantly, and we rarely stop to glorify it with the lofty word “forgiveness.”
This science, in other words, liberates us from reductive analyses of ourselves and the world around us. If we accept the normalcy of our instincts both to revenge and forgive, and can see what triggers them both, we have more control over both.
On its cautionary side, it offers lucid explanation of why human societies remain vulnerable — physiologically, not merely politically — to falling back on retaliation and violence as a form of justice. When we cease to see our own well-being as linked to that of others, when we feel threatened by their very existence and are only able to see them amorphously as part of an opposing group, the forgiveness instinct becomes less possible and violence more likely.
This conversation with Michael McCullough heightens my sense of what is at stake in the present global and national moment. One the one hand, the interactivity of the globalized world should make it possible — even necessary — for us to know people far beyond our families and “tribes” as necessary to our survival and even our flourishing.
I am also deeply concerned, as we roll through another toxic election year, at how complete the chasms in American society have become. We have divided ourselves in countless ways — between red and blue, between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Such distinctions are surely inevitable. But the utter lack of communication, courtesy, and curiosity across these divides seems new to me. Alarmingly, the religious traditions that have been humanity’s moral respositories are also implicated in some of these divisions. How intriguing to imagine that we might harness lessons of science towards a more reconciliatory, peaceable future.
Electricity doesn’t come cheap but sunlight does. Unfortunately, and far too often, the later isn’t maximized and utilized. Passive lighting is one of the easiest ways to cut electricity costs during the day and reap the benefits of natural light and illumination.
Terrifying Fact Number Two, is that I’ve just watched Matt Smith carrying a flaming torch on screen. Oh, it’s for such a thrilling scene in Episode 12. Really and truly, magnificent and epic. A proper movie moment. But never mind that, it’s Matt carrying a FLAMING TORCH. Look, Matt’s lovely, he’s a magnificent, brand new, hilarious, heartbreaking, heroic Doctor — but the fact is, if that man walks into a room with a coffee then it’s only so long before you’re wearing it. No, really, clumsiest man on earth. He walks like he’s in a constant state of surprise at his own limbs. I remember when he turned up at a Worldwide meeting really early on, and the first thing he did was spill a cup of coffee over a rather lovely woman. Naturally she giggled, flushed and introduced her mother. (Ahh, life when you’re Matt ! I accidentally made eye contact with the same woman — she phoned the police and shot me in the face.) On the way out he apologised to a completely different woman for the coffee incident. “That was the wrong woman,” I said, as he went out the doors. “Nope,” he replied, “That was the second cup.”
Oh, and there was the top secret, very special, extra readthrough for Episode 10 (I’m talking that up, but what the hell) and Matt came striding in with a GUITAR ON HIS BACK. I have honestly never seen a whole roomful of people flatten themselves against a wall with such a high-pitched squeal of terror. Except Karen, of course, who trotted along behind him without a care in the world. Oh, the horror as the Doctor spun and chatted and coffeed a series of delighted women. How that guitar arced and scythed! Swish! Get down, Karen! Swish! Karen, save yourself! Swish! Not her face, Matt, NOT HER FACE!! Ah, the memories. You know, to this day I’m not sure if Matt knew he had a guitar on his back — he might just have collided with a musician.
“It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”—Wendell Berry (via iwillpracticeresurrection)
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of…
“Unlike the culture of the European Middle Ages, which honored the vocations of the learned teacher, the country parson, and the plowman as well as that of the knight, or the culture of Japan in the Edo period which ranked the farmer and the craftsman above the merchant, our own culture places an absolute premium upon various kinds of stardom. This degrades and impoverishes ordinary life, ordinary work, and ordinary experience. It depreciates and underpays the work of the primary producers of goods, and of the performers of all kinds of essential but unglamorous jobs and duties. The inevitable practical results are that most work is now poorly done; great cultural and natural resources are neglected, wasted, or abused; the land and its creatures are destroyed; and the citizenry is poorly taught, poorly governed, and poorly served.
Moreover, in education, to place so exclusive an emphasis upon “high achievement” is to lie to one’s students. […] The goal of education-as-job-training, which is now the dominant pedagogical idea, is a high professional salary. Young people are being told, “You can be anything you want to be.” Every student is given to understand that he or she is being prepared for “leadership.” All of this is a lie. Original discovery is not everything. You don’t, for instance, have to be an original discoverer in order to be a good science teacher. A high professional salary is not everything. You can’t be everything you want to be; nobody can. Everybody can’t be a leader; not everybody even wants to be. And these lies are not innocent. They lead to disappointment. They lead good young people to think that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.”— Wendell Berry (Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition)