I’ve never understood revenge. When someone does something horrible to me, enough damage has been done. I don’t want to exacerbate the damage by inflicting additional pain through a separate negative action. I also believe in universal balance, or karma. “What goes around, comes around” is not just a proverb; I’ve seen it happen over and over again. When people hurt others, they are soon experiencing pain from an “unrelated” event.
Revenge is different from justice. Justice just means that people should be responsible for their actions; but it does not mean that more pain should be inflicted simply to “balance the score.” Ensuring that individuals are responsible for the pain they have caused is a form of justice. An associate recalled, “My best friend and I had plans for a Saturday night and at the last minute, she cancelled. Since I was really looking forward to a night on the town, I was extremely hurt by her betrayal. I later found out that she had gone out with another group of people because they had an invitation to a trendy party. She lied to me when she canceled our plans and thought that I would never find out the truth... I finally confronted her with her actions only because I thought she should be aware of the pain she caused me that night. After that conversation, she never spoke to me again.” Many people are unable to face the cruelty of their own actions and prefer to avoid any form of confrontation. This avoidance is usually based on fear. They are afraid of being held accountable for their actions, they are afraid of repercussions and they are afraid of admitting their own inadequacies even to themselves; just hearing the truth about their behavior causes pain. The extreme form of avoidance is to run away from the person who has been hurt, which causes more pain for both people. In this case, justice leads to further separation and betrayal.
There is nothing wrong with confronting people with the pain they have caused, even if the end result is painful. Individuals need to be responsible for their behavior. If we do not confront the people who have committed the inequity, the hostility can build inside ourselves, which can be psychologically damaging. Yet, based on fear, we live in a society where some people avoid all forms of negativity, even at the expense of justice. “Sometimes, it is just better to leave things alone,” replied the same associate. “If I had known that confronting the truth about her betrayal would have caused our friendship to end, I never would have mentioned it.” Past experience with confrontations about negative behavior can lead to a complete avoidance of anything unpleasant in an attempt to preserve the “friendship.” Yet real friends can face the responsibility of the pain they cause others, without destroying the relationship. Someone who runs away from others when negativity is exposed could never be a real friend to anyone. These people are continually running away from themselves and they repeatedly refuse to take responsibility for their actions. It is no different from someone who runs away from the law after committing a crime. In both cases, justice is being avoided.
Revenge is an emotion that is based on hatred, rather than justice. Negative actions are pursued only to further punish the person who inflicted the initial pain. Taking responsibility for actions is never enough. The “victim” feels that a greater punishment is deserved. Revenge appears to make the “victim” feel better but actions based on hatred only cause pain. Spinoza states, “ To hate is to acknowledge our inferiority and fear; we do not hate a foe whom we are confident we can overcome. He who wishes to revenge injuries by reciprocal hatred will live in misery.” Wayne Dyer says, “To hold onto the pain and seek to exact revenge will simply keep you stuck in pain, and the problem will be exacerbated. The old Chinese proverb states… ‘If you’re going to seek revenge, you’d better dig two graves.’”
Revenge is similar to a punishment that exceeds the severity of the “crime.” Revenge also changes the balance of negative energy. Initially, the person who causes the pain has the “negative score” but once revenge occurs, negativity is also attached to the person who decides to be revengeful. In The Sermon on the Mount, Emmet Fox says, ”Jesus… says that when someone injures you, instead of seeking to get your own back or to repay him in his own coin, you are to do the very opposite – you are to forgive him, and set him free. No matter what the provocation may be, and no matter how many times it is repeated, you are to do this. You are to … let him go, for thus only can you be freed yourself…To return evil for evil, to answer violence with violence and hate with hate, is to start a vicious circle to which there is no ending.” He says that it is not a difficult feat to return love to those who love us. The challenge is to show love to those who hate us.
When negative actions are painful, rather than illegal, it is impossible to know the correct punishment. That is why the principle of karma is so powerful. It states that individuals do not need to decide the appropriate punishment because the universe ensures the natural balance of negative and positive energy. It is not justifiable to rationalize a negative action with another negative action because there are no guarantees that each act of negativity is equal. For example, a friend of mine once rationalized the fact that she cheated on her boyfriend by saying that he deserved it, because he had once cheated on her. Yet, his previous infidelity did not rationalize her latest betrayal. Her infidelity just created a new negative action. Justice would have been served by confronting her boyfriend about his previous act of infidelity. Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances that should have been considered and it is possible that his remorse for the action would have balanced the negative act. She also could have simply ended the relationship as a form of justice. However, once a new negative action occurs, it no longer relates to the first act of betrayal; the new negativity creates its own “balance sheet.” For example, if an act of infidelity is also an act of revenge, it embodies two negative actions, instead of just one. There is negativity for the act of betrayal and there is additional negativity for the desire to hurt another individual through revenge. These two acts of infidelity are not equal, which means that each action has its own appropriate punishment.
The way a person is confronted also affects the balance of negativity. I have always believed that it is appropriate to address the negative actions but it is unfair to extend those actions to generalizations about negative character traits. Stating that a person’s behavior is hurtful is different from saying that the person is cruel. This distinction is frequently misunderstood because many people cannot separate their actions from their character, even though actions do not always equate to character. Since we are not perfect, unselfish people often commit selfish acts. Telling someone that an action was selfish is different from saying that the person is selfish. In spite of painstaking efforts to make this distinction, I have found that when people repeat back what I have said, they substitute a perception about negative character traits for the words that I said about negative actions. I’ve also noticed that other people don’t make this distinction. If I commit a selfish act, I am told that I am a selfish person. I can take responsibility for acting selfishly in a particular instance, but I think it’s unfair to label me as a selfish person without being able to accurately measure my acts of selfishness vs. unselfishness over my entire lifetime.
Karma is the universal system of justice and it is conducted without emotion or negative judgment. Karma is different from justice because it is not really punishment; it is only an opportunity for future learning. Karma states that for every action there will be a corresponding and appropriate reaction. In the Bible, it is stated, “What you sow, that is what you reap.” If someone acts positively, then positive energy will come back to the person and if someone acts negatively, then negative energy will come back to the person. There is actually no need for human interference with this system because it works flawlessly. It works just like a boomerang. The boomerang comes back to us every time it is thrown into the air. Inevitably, we are responsible for our actions.
In The Sermon on the Mount, Emmet Fox explains that when Jesus said “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,“ he was preaching the law of Karma. Fox says, “As we think, and speak, and act toward others, so will others think, and speak, and act towards us. Whatever sort of conduct we give out, that we are inevitably bound to get back. Anything and everything that we do to others will sooner or later be done to us by someone, somewhere. The good that we do to others we shall receive back in like measure; and the evil that we do to others in like manner we shall receive back too. This does not in the least mean that the same people whom we treat well or ill will be the actual ones to return the action. That almost never happens; but what does happen is that at some other time or place, often far away and long afterwards, someone else who knows nothing whatever of the previous action will, nevertheless, repay it, grain for grain, to us. For every unkind word that you speak to or about another person, an unkind word will be spoken to or about you. For every time that you cheat, you will be cheated. For every time that you deceive, you will be deceived. For every lie that you utter, you will be lied to. Every time that you neglect a duty, or evade a responsibility, or misuse authority over other people, you are doing something for which you will inevitably have to pay by suffering a like injury yourself…People are very apt to think, especially when they are tempted, that they can probably escape the law of the land…or slip through the clutches of authority in some other way. They hope that individuals will forgive them, or else be powerless to revenge their actions; or that the thing will be forgotten sometime; or better still, that they will never be found out at all. If, however, they understood that the law of retribution is a Cosmic Law, impersonal and unchanging as the law of gravity…they would think twice before they treated other people unjustly. The law of gravity never sleeps, is never off duty or off its guard, is never tired out, is neither compassionate nor vindictive; and no one would ever dream of trying to evade it, or coax it, or bribe it, or intimidate it. People accept it as being inevitable and inescapable, and they shape their conduct accordingly – and the law of retribution is as even as the law of gravity…Some Christian people, upon hearing the law of retribution explained, have objected that this is Buddhism or Hinduism, and not Christianity. Now it is perfectly true that this law is taught by the Buddhists and by the Hinduists, and wisely so – because it is the law of nature.”
With karma, individuals are held responsible for their actions even if punishment or confrontation never occurs. Sometimes I do not ask others to take responsibility for their actions because I have faith that universe will provide the balancing response. This is particularly true if a person’s actions caused an incredible amount of pain or if I believe that the confrontation will not change behavior or cause remorse. If I am unsure that I will respond appropriately or if I am afraid that I will overreact, I may remain silent because I don’t want the confrontation to cause additional negative “check marks” on my personal balance sheet. Sometimes, it is just better to forgive and move on. If we decide to avoid confrontation, we must honestly forgive the person who betrayed us. Without forgiveness, the painful actions continue to haunt us. Resentment creates attachment and forgiveness frees us from lingering pain and contempt.
Some people believe if they don’t “get caught,” they have avoided the negative consequences of their actions. This is often the case when someone lies to another person. If the lie is not exposed, the person believes that no harm has been done. If the lie is told in an attempt to prevent pain for another person, the negativity is probably minor. However, if the lie is told for reasons of personal gain, the lack of exposure does not eliminate responsibility. The liar may not recognize the “punishment” but undoubtedly, it occurs. A future negative action happens to the person and it only appears to be unrelated to the original infraction.
A “red flag” is always present when people continually portray themselves as “victims.” They believe that numerous negative events are happening to them, without any negative actions on their part. Many “victims” are actually very negative people. Their “bad luck” stories seem to be unrelated to actions on their part, when indirectly they have brought the bad luck to themselves. Everyone is exposed to some level of “bad luck” but repeated bad luck usually implies some form of personal responsibility. In fact, many people who call themselves “victims” are often the victimizers. Other people become the victims of their own cruel actions.
Retribution can be unnoticed unless the person is looking for it. “I once found $20 in a money machine, which I thought was a stroke of good luck,” recalled my neighbor. “Yet, I saw the person who had just left the machine. I could have run after that person to see if the money belonged to him, but I didn’t. Three days later, I lost $20. It was in my pocket when I left my house, but when I got to the grocery store, it was gone.” Some people might call this story a coincidence but these types of coincidences happen all the time.
People who believe in reincarnation explain continual “bad luck” on negative balance sheets that carry over from one life to the next. In other words, karma continues forever. They also believe that retribution (or justice) can occur between the same two people even if the act is unpunished at the time of death. This especially becomes necessary if one person kills another. If the murderer is not held responsible in one life, the responsibility can carry forward to a future life (and since the person who was killed cannot impose retribution in the first life, personal retribution would have to occur in a future life).
It is difficult to determine whether an action is balancing past karma or creating new karma. More often than not, the karma isn’t balanced at all. As explained in The Way of Karma by Charles Breaux, karma is often reflected by the presence of similar patterns that continue from one life to the next. It is difficult to break the pattern because resorting to the familiar feels more comfortable. It takes intense introspection and self-discovery to understand the patterns that we keep repeating in this life. For instance, if someone is motivated by power, it is likely that this motivation is in the subconscious as well as the conscious. It is hard to know what we have buried in our subconscious and it is difficult to see how these subconscious feelings are affecting our current behavior.
Discovery can occur by examining our fears. If we have a fear of subservience it may be because the desire for subordination is an innate part of our character. To overcome the fear and to change behavior is one way of removing the karma of our actions. We learn from past mistakes. Every mistake is a clue to our karma. If a mistake keeps repeating itself, it is a sign that we need to correct this behavior so that our character can evolve. We may keep encountering similar situations as an opportunity to change behavior. If we do not learn, we are likely to repeat.
Karma can also exist in relationships. If we naturally possess a particular character trait with certain people, it may be a lesson to change this particular behavior. In past life therapies, it has been found that people often keep repeating a particular character trait until it is consciously corrected. Removing the karma means that we first forgive ourselves and then be committed to change. According to Breaux, “the common ‘eye for an eye’ meaning of karma doesn’t really fit. Karma, as I often see it, is simply doing what we have done before. It’s being stuck in a rigid way of perceiving the world and acting in prescribed manners.”
If everyone believed in the power and enforcement of karma, negative actions would decline significantly. Karma is the only justice system where enforcement is 100%, which could be an extremely effective deterrent. It doesn’t matter if violators get physically caught, because they are still held accountable. A negative action committed without the knowledge of a single person (except the perpetrator) is still “punished” in one way or another and in most cases our worst prosecutors are merely ourselves. According to Joseph Goldstein in his essay, A Buddhist View of Karma, he says, “Compassion, as well as insight, arises from understanding karma. When we understand that unfair, harmful, or hateful actions rebound in suffering to the person committing them as well as to the recipient, we can respond to both with compassion rather than with anger or resentment.”
People have the power to create a positive balance sheet, regardless of actions in past lives. If significant effort is spent creating positive events and if forgiveness of others occurs regularly, negative karma can be changed to positive karma. Even little events can erase bad karma. For example, if a person does one nice thing every day, positive karma increases. The act of generosity can be as simple as taking a piece of trash off the street and putting it into a trashcan. Often, individuals might not pick up a piece of trash because they don’t feel responsible for it. They use rationalizations like, “I didn’t put the trash there,” or “it isn’t my job to pick up trash,” to avoid the action. Yet if they viewed that action as a way of creating a positive balance sheet, we might have cleaner streets without an investment in additional trash collectors.
Karma is justice but revenge is not. Revenge is only rationalized as justice. Revenge is the equivalent of cutting off a person’s hand for stealing a loaf of bread. In today’s society, the man who cuts off a thief’s hand is guilty of a crime because we recognize that his “rationalized punishment” was too severe for the crime. The beauty of karma is that even if we don’t recognize that revenge is an inappropriate punishment, we cannot escape its retribution. There is a reason that revenge is considered one of the “seven deadly sins.” Revenge is perceived as justice or punishment for someone else, while the justice of karma ensures that by committing revenge, we are only punishing ourselves. As the proverb states, “an eye for an eye makes everyone blind.”
The most confusing argument about justice vs. revenge is the issue of capital punishment. Some people argue that capital punishment is appropriate because it makes the victims’ families “feel better.” This is clearly an argument for revenge rather than justice. The question is whether capital punishment is the appropriate justice for heinous crimes. Can man effectively play God?
The issue becomes more confused when people argue economics or deterrence. In most cases, the difference between life in prison and death is irrelevant when an evil person decides to commit a heinous crime and the argument for deterrence is extremely difficult to prove (because we do not fully understand the workings of the criminal mind). There is no way to prove conclusively that a potential criminal refrains from murder because the state imposes capital punishment. It is true that the cost of imposing capital punishment is greater than the cost of life imprisonment but these costs should never be the determining factor in making an ethical decision about appropriate justice.
Some people argue against the death penalty because some innocent people are convicted. Yes, it has been shown that some innocent people are on death row but there are also some innocent people in jail for life. The issue is how we can ensure that innocent people are not convicted unfairly, rather than using these exceptions as an argument against capital punishment.
On the other side of the equation, capital punishment is rationalized as justice because some people believe that if any time a life is taken, the attacker should lose his life in return. The question is whether our legal system should sink to the level of the killer; if a killer commits a heinous act, does this mean that the state should conduct the same action? By saying that those who kill should be killed is a disguised argument for revenge.
Another argument for capital punishment is that our justice system is inefficient and people who are committed to life in prison are released too soon. It is unfair to argue that capital punishment is the appropriate justice for the crime only because there are flaws in our legal system. In this case, we need to work on correcting the legal system so that lenient sentences are not inflicted for serious crimes. This is a separate issue from whether capital punishment is the appropriate justice; instead, this is a question about the effectiveness of our current judicial system. If the system is ineffective, we should not overcompensate punishment or take justice into our own hands; instead, we should change the legal system so that it is more equitable.
The real question for me is whether capital punishment is unequivocally the worst punishment that can be imposed upon a human being. We naturally place capital punishment at the furthest end of the spectrum. Since we cannot see the person anymore and because we cherish life, we assume that the punishment of death is more severe than any other form of punishment. Undoubtedly, capital punishment ensures that the person will never commit a crime again (in this lifetime) but couldn’t this same assurance be guaranteed if the person were locked up for life with no chance for parole?
Why do we assume that death is the severest form of punishment for the convicted felon? We do not know what happens at death. What if death is not the end of our existence? What if the universe is more forgiving than we are? If death is not a negative experience, then the only guaranteed suffering is for the friends and family who care about the convicted criminal. It is possible that individuals take their personal “hells” with them as they pass from this dimension to the next, but heinous criminals probably don’t feel the kind of remorse that is needed to create this kind of hell.
The only thing we know for certain is that a life in prison takes away all personal freedoms and that the day-to-day experience is brutally painful. Some criminals may adapt to this lifestyle but surely they are not free or happy. A life in prison is no life at all. All of a person’s dreams and hopes are taken away. The suffering continues until the day of their death. In my opinion, no existence or punishment could be worse than this. Since the harsh punishment of a life in prison is the only thing we know for sure, why do we assume that a harsher punishment is an existence we know nothing about? The punishment should fit the crime. Shouldn’t we be focusing on ensuring the severity of life in prison rather than imposing a punishment that has an unknown result?
In Michael Newton’s book, Destiny of Souls, he documents an extensive number of hypnosis sessions with patients to explain what happens in between lives. He states, “Those souls who have been associated with evil are taken to special centers which some clients call ‘intensive care units.’ Here, I am told, their energy is remodeled to make it whole again. Depending upon the nature of their transgressions, these souls could be rather quickly returned to Earth. They might well choose to serve as the victims of others evil acts in the next life. Still if their actions were prolonged and especially cruel over a number of lives, this would denote a pattern of wrongful behavior. Such souls could spend a long while in a solitary spiritual existence, possibly over a thousand Earth years. A guiding principle in the spirit world is that wrongdoing, intentional or unintentional, on the part of all souls will need to be redressed in some form in a future life. This is not considered punishment or even penance as much as an opportunity for karmic growth. There is no hell for souls, except perhaps on Earth.” If this theory is correct, then capital punishment does not ensure that the heinous criminal is secluded from society. In fact, it may indicate that this soul returns to earth rather quickly as an opportunity to balance its karmic transgressions. Sylvia Browne (world renown psychic) states that evil people come back to earth immediately without any intensive care or exclusion. They immediately go from the death in one life to birth in the next. If her theory is correct, then capital punishment ensures that the person returns immediately to earth without any spiritual rehabilitation.
If Charles Breaux’s theory about karma is correct, the soul is more likely to repeat the negative pattern, rather than changing it. In other words, the evil people who die by capital punishment should have the same propensity toward evil in their future life as they had in their current life. Thus, if we put all of these theories together, it means that capital punishment may create more evil on earth in the long run, rather than less. After the state has extinguished a criminal’s current life, the evil person is quickly returned to earth where he or she can commit further atrocities. A life in prison, on the other hand, would have ensured that the criminal was secluded from society for a long period of time.
For actions that are not illegal, the best way to ensure that the punishment is commensurate to the crime is to allow the universe to function appropriately. Negative actions may be resolved without any action on our part and unethical acts that are legal do not escape justice. The danger of trying to impose our own system of justice onto others is that we are likely to overestimate the appropriate punishment for unethical acts because the pain is personal. There is a high probability that our self-administered judicial system could be creating self-punishment without our knowledge or consent.
It is also helpful to realize that betrayals do not need resolution between the two people involved. Each person needs to answer to himself and God. In other words, the issue is always between the person who committed the infraction and the higher power in the universe. All individuals are accountable for their actions, but they do not have to be accountable to the person who is betrayed. It is better to forgive the person with the comfort of knowing that all inequities are eventually resolved. Even if the betrayer seems to get away with something that is unfair, we must never forget that universal equity is the natural law of the universe.
When John Nash’s behavior was monopolized by schizophrenia, he actually drew an insightful model of the balance among revenge, justice, mercy and love. It appeared that each emotion was intimately connected. Revenge was the lowest form of emotion that was a part of a larger system of justice. Justice was incorporated into the larger emotion of mercy (or forgiveness) and surrounding all of these emotions was love. His model looked like this:
This model is completely rational. The compassion of unconditional love naturally encompasses the emotion of mercy or forgiveness. If mercy exists, there is no need for justice because the action is already forgiven. For example, if someone refuses to press charges, he or she is saying that there is mercy, which means that no action is needed from the judicial system. On the other end of the spectrum, when justice exists, there is no need for revenge (unless an individual is irrationally consumed by personal hatred and retribution). . It is also interesting that revenge is at the base of the model because revenge is based in hate, rather than love, and it would be consistent that an action based in hate would be on the opposite side of the spectrum from the emotion of love.
If love is the all-encompassing emotion, then its attainment could make mercy, justice and revenge unnecessary. If we unconditionally loved someone who had treated us with cruelty, would we need to impose mercy? If we honestly forgive, do we need punishment through justice? If we believe in universal justice, do we need revenge? The other interesting aspect of the continuum is that it ranges from actions of the heart to actions of the head. Love and mercy are positive emotions generated from the heart, while justice and revenge are usually intellectually calculated.
In The Beautiful Mind, John Nash’s character gives a beautiful speech about the connection of heart and mind at the Nobel Prize ceremony. He states, “I’ve always believed in numbers -- in the equations and logic that lead to reason. But after a lifetime of such pursuits I ask, what truly is logic? Who decides reason? My quest has taken me through the physical, the metaphysical the delusional and back. And I have made the most important discovery of my career -- the most important discovery of my life -- it is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found.”
A more detailed model of the hate to love continuum is shown below. The arrows represent influences. The desire for justice can be influenced by hatred or influenced by mercy. The resulting actions may also depend on the motivating influence. For example, if the desire for personal justice is influenced by hatred (for an act that is not illegal), there may be harsh personal punishment. If this same act is influenced by compassion, the end result will probably be confrontation or accountability without punishment.
The emotion of love is a primary influence over the entire process because it has the power to create the emotions of mercy, compassion or empathy. Without love, these emotions may not even exist and in turn, justice is primarily influenced by negative emotions such as hatred or anger. The entire system requires a healthy balance between mercy and justice. As stated in Kabbalah, Kenneth Hansen says that if there were too much mercy, “this would result in criminals going free or tyrants unchallenged. On the other hand, if too much judgment were to emanate, the innocent might be punished or people suffer inordinately…God it seems, has two faces, one of judgment, the other of compassion. While these characteristics appear as mutually contradictory, they are in fact meant to be in balance, in divine coexistence. When the opposing forces in the universe are maintained in perfect balance, all inequities and injustices are avoided.”
If we want to be free of blame, it is probably best not to blame others. Forgiving others is positive and revenge toward others is negative. Based on the system of karma, by forgiving someone else, we are actually forgiving ourselves because we are creating positive energy that can mitigate our past acts of negativity.
The balanced scales that represent justice are extremely symbolic. We can refute or ignore the balanced scales of the universe, but we can’t hide from the truth by closing our eyes. We can fail to see justice by labeling continual misfortune as “a run of bad luck;” but we can’t avoid taking responsibility for our actions just by believing that karma doesn’t really exist.